5 July 2010

Propositional versus Experiential Realism

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:34 am

In his recent post on The World and the Real, Pete Wolfendale of Deontologistics summarizes certain key themes which he elaborates in greater detail in his “Essay on Transcendental Realism” (PDF link embedded in Pete’s post). He begins by asserting that only sapient beings can achieve a progressively more accurate understanding of reality. A sapient being is self-aware: it recognizes that it makes mistakes in its perceptions or beliefs about the world, and consequently that the world might be something other than the sapient being’s subjective experience of it. A sapient being is also self-corrective: it can take deliberate steps to compensate for its perceptual limitations or interpretive mistakes in understanding the world, thereby incrementally closing the gap between subjective understanding and objective reality. Guided by mutually honored norms of objectivity and rationality, we self-aware and self-correcting beings can work together toward achieving a progressively more accurate understanding of the world. This normative, rational pursuit of objectivity takes the form of an ever-growing set of propositions or truth claims about reality. These propositions are continually subjected to a work of purification that replaces misperceived and erroneous truth claims with more and more accurate ones.

Pete says that, in doing ontology, grasping the epistemological basis for how we come to know the world is more foundational than the structure and content of the world itself:

“The important point is that Brandom is right to claim that our understanding of truth is more primitive than our understanding of existence. Our understanding of true claims (or ‘facts’) is more primitive than our understanding of things (objects or entities).”

A truth claim is a proposition that makes reference to purported facts about the world, which in turn make reference to things in the world. The sequence by which we understand any proposition is: semantic meaning of the proposition → understanding of how the nouns and verbs and adjectives in the proposition are interconnected → understanding of the proposition’s truth claims about the interconnections among objects and properties and forces in the world. Or as Pete says:

“Just as there is the pointing, the direction pointed in, and the thing pointed at, in representation there is the act of representing (assertion), the content of representation (proposition), and the object represented (things within the world, and in the limit, the world itself).

So if you tell me “The cat is on the mat,” I have to understand how this sentence hangs together as a meaningful bit of language, then how “cat” and “mat” and “on” fit together syntactically in this sentence, then I follow the trajectory of the linguistic “pointing” out to how the actual cat and mat in the world are positioned relative to each other. Okay, I can see the sequence here in linguistic processing. But why would Brandom — and Pete — assert that, for humans, understanding semantics is “more primitive” than understanding the world? Pete further claims this:

“Our representation of the world as a whole is just the totality of propositions that we take to be true.”

According to this (debatable) formulation, presumably we have a large and interconnected set of propositions about the world stored in memory, which we then retrieve as needed. It’s obvious that the world itself isn’t made up of propositions; rather, says Pete, our representation consists of a set of linguistic pointers to things in the world. Our access to the world, both individually and in conversation, is mediated by propositions about the world. Presumably, then, we can’t make sense of the things in the world without first retrieving from our mental representations those propositions that point to the things in the world.

What makes Pete a realist is his assertion that propositions and the words from which they’re composed really do point to corresponding things in the world, rather than just pointing to other words and propositions inside the representational-linguistic matrix. So when people talk about the world they really are talking about the world. From my standpoint Pete’s interpretation of the relationship between language and reality is a big improvement over Saussurian structuralism, where words point only to other words inside the representational-linguistic matrix, and over Lacanian post-structuralism, where language cuts us off from direct access to the real. On the other hand, in Pete’s formulation language still precedes and mediates our access to the real.

Pete’s theory is embedded in and responsive to the philosophical traditions in ontology and epistemology. I’m more familiar with the empirical psychological literature. The main issue I’d like to address is Brandom’s assertion that “our understanding of truth is more primitive than our understanding of existence,” that propositions about reality precede and mediate our engagement with reality. Briefly, I’d like to point to some empirical evidence to the contrary.

*   *   *

All non-human primates and many other mammal species make use of non-linguistic representation of the world. For example, they remember where the best sources of food are found, they can take detours and shortcuts navigating through their territories, they follow the movements of objects even when completely occluded behind other objects (“object permanence” in Piagetian parlance), they categorize objects based on perceptual similarities, they predict the behavior of conspecifics based on emotional state or direction of locomotion, they use strategies to compete with groupmates for resources. Non-human primates in their natural habitats invent tools, learn important behaviors from their mothers, and understand kinship and dominance relationships among conspecifics that don’t involve themselves. They can be taught by humans to make same-different categorizations of objects; e.g., to distinguish between pairs of objects that are identical to each other from those that are different from each other. However, it takes many repeated trials for mature chimpanzees to learn this skill. By contrast, even very young children can make these object categorizations with ease. Similarly, two-year-old children can infer cause-effect relations between objects in the world; e.g., they understand immediately that an object being pushed through a horizontal tube with a hole in the bottom of it will fall through the hole. Adult chimpanzees, by contrast, don’t get it and must learn through extensive trial and error.

It seems then, based on a wide variety of evidence, that direct representation of the world is more “primitive” than, as well as a likely precondition for, propositional representation of the world. Similarly, non-representational direct responses to the world — e.g., sunflower blossoms that follow the sun’s arc across the sky — are more primitive stepping-stones toward representation. Representation allows the organism to respond to features of the world that aren’t immediately present to the organism; language further extends representational non-immediacy to greater levels of abstraction. And, without going into empirical evidence on the nature of cognitive representation in the human brain, I think that there are distinct advantages of retaining the direct representational content and structures on which linguistic representations are developmentally predicated. Understanding what things in the world are like, what sorts of features they might exhibit, how they can interconnect, how they might work together in cause-effect chains: this sort of general knowledge about the world can be of invaluable aid in coming to grips with new experiences and in formulating propositions for describing our discoveries to others.

Empirical studies of infant language development also cast doubt on Brandom’s assertion of the primacy of propositional truths about reality. The body of evidence strongly supports a developmental sequence that goes like this: (1) following someone else’s pointing at an object in the world; (2) pointing in order to attract another’s attention to something; (3) understanding that someone else’s spoken word corresponds to the object being pointed at; (4) understanding the spoken word and looking toward the object corresponding to that word; (5) speaking the word corresponding to the object being pointed at; (6)  speaking the word referring to the object without pointing at it. Empirical evidence thus supports the inference that, in infant humans, achieving joint intersubjective attention toward specific objects in the world precedes the ability to understand or to use linguistic representations for thinking about and pointing to objects.

In sum, I don’t believe that the empirical evidence support’s Brandom’s — or at least my understanding of Brandom’s — assertion that, for humans, truth propositions about the world precede direct understanding of the world. The sequence by which an adult human understands a proposition — verbal representation, words “pointing” into the world, object pointed to —  doesn’t correspond to the developmental sequence, either in individuals or in the species, of acquiring the requisite knowledge for understanding propositions. Experiential encounters with the real precede and give shape to propositional descriptions of the real.

I think I’ll stop here, and follow up with a separate post addressing Pete’s insistence on the importance of sapience and the norm of objectivity in moving toward a more accurate understanding of the world.  UPDATE: I think we handled it in the discussion on this post.



  1. Graham Harman cites a passage from Alphonso Lingis, his former adviser, on pigeon intelligence. Like mammals, pigeons can categorize different kinds of objects, generalizing from specific examples to new cases to which they’d not previously been exposed. It seems they can even learn to distinguish cubist from impressionist paintings. I think it’s fair to regard the pigeons’ ability to infer a general category from specific examples, and to assign new examples to learned categories, as evidence of cognitive representation. Some birds are pretty darned clever: in a post from awhile back I described research demonstrating that magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, which is something even chimps can’t do.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 July 2010 @ 2:30 pm

  2. Hi ktismatics, really liking this line of analysis – I think it’s well worth addressing these kinds of issues in analytic philosophy with actual empirical stuff. :-) This is a complete aside and has no implications for anything else you’ve said, but my understanding is that chimps can recognize themselves in a mirror. The abstract of this paper (which I haven’t read) says that “mirror self-recognition is a highly stable trait in many chimpanzees, but may be subject to decline with age.

    Hope you’re well…


    Comment by duncan — 6 July 2010 @ 2:54 am

  3. Thanks, Duncan. I stand corrected — also several other kinds of primates, plus porpoises. It usually takes them awhile to get it, but they don’t need to be trained in order to recognize themselves. Children don’t get it either until they’re 18-24 months old: self-awareness of whatever form takes some time to develop. I’m still working on it, although based on your linked abstract I’ll probably start losing myself eventually.

    This isn’t an aside really. Empirically it turns out that, for human children, language acquisition typically is achieved before mirror self-recognition. However, if other non-linguistic primates can do it, then for humans too self-representation is probably not language-dependent. The consistent interpretation would be this: Language comprehension requires taking the other’s perspective, recognizing that the speaker is consciously attending to something in the world and trying to attract the listener’s attention to that thing. The listener has to assume the speaker’s perspective as an intentional agent in order to comprehend the intended meaning of the utterance. Recognizing one’s reflection likewise requires seeing oneself as if from another’s perspective. Non-human primates’ ability at taking the other’s perspective is far more limited than humans’; e.g., while chimps can imitate others’ behaviors in extracting food from a known source, it’s evident that they don’t understand others’ intentionality in seeking food. Self-recognition requires perceptual perspective-taking, which is not unlike imitation of visually-observed behavior, so it makes sense that chimps could do it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 July 2010 @ 5:56 am

    • Thinking about this a bit more, ktismatics, I was reminded of a trip I took to the zoo a few weeks back, where I had the chance to see gorillas up close for the first time! Even though I’m sceptical anyway about human exceptionalism, I found it viscerally startling how immediately parseable the gorillas behaviour was – incredibly complicated social interactions and very easily graspable personality differences were visible even from half an hour or so of observation. To all intents and purposes, it was like being at the margins of an unfamiliar human social group, getting a sense of the group’s dynamics, and of the personalities and rituals in play. Any theoretical perspective that denies sentience here has difficulty with basic plausibility, to my mind.

      An additional factor, however, is that gorillas’ behaviour is so immediately sensical to us because, I assume, of strong similarities between gorilla gorilla and homo sapiens sapiens, anatomical and social. The elephants a few enclosures along were also immediately obviously sentient, but I found the dynamics harder to parse, and there appeared to be communication I wasn’t observing or understanding as communicative, given my frame of reference. When animals’ anatomy and modes of interaction with each other and their environment are still more distant from our own, it becomes still harder, I think, to understand their behaviour by analogy with our own. (Octopuses, for example, which exhibit remarkable problem-solving skills but are at least to my mind thoroughly alien.)

      The thing is that if, as I believe we should, we accept as a legitimate tool of comprehension our ability to understand some animals’ activity in sentience-terms, because of the closeness of these animals’ behaviours to our own, and the imaginative access to (other-)animal consciousness these similarities make available, this also opens up our awareness that sentience could correlate with behaviours that don’t so closely resemble our own: that something a whole lot like what we call sentience in ourselves might manifest in unexpected or unfamiliar ways. And then the question becomes how legitimate our own criteria for sentience-detection are: language, for example, is a clever trick, but it’s unclear to me why it should a priori be given a special status in relation to consciousness. (I also think it’s often a bit arbitrary what a lot of people mean by ‘language’, given the communicative resources that a lot of animals clearly have at their disposal, but that’s another story.)

      Anyway, this is another aside again – I only mention it because I was thinking about the gorillas in relation to your post.


      Comment by duncan — 8 July 2010 @ 3:43 am

      • I think this is a good line of thought, Duncan. Evolution happened to result in a species of self-reflexive, symbolic language-using sentient beings who can move progressively toward a larger and more purely objective set of factual statements about the real. Is this the only way that an objective representation of reality can come about? Isn’t it possible that, over the next hundred million years, porpoises or octopi might evolve some extremely effective self-correcting feedback loop that works more or less automatically, without having to angst over mistakes and decide whether to follow the deontological Prime Directive of objectivity?

        Science fiction plays with these ideas. Peter Watts is a Ph.D. ecologist turned scifi writer. His book Blindsight is premised on human first contact with an alien life form that operates this way: an ultra-intelligent hive mind that is an extremely quick and efficient self-corrective learner but that has no self-reflexivity. It turns out that, in Watts’ tale, this alien species is likely to displace humanity because, without self-reflexivity, its individual members aren’t worried about self-preservation. They each contribute to the survival and dominance of the hive as a whole.

        AI researchers have gone through a few generations of machines now. Some of them have modeled expert human performance, with knowledge bases consisting first of hierarchies of propositions, then of networks of linguistic objects and their properties. Interfaces with external info sources (e.g., human users) enabled these devices to check the accuracy of their judgments, to probe selectively for clarifying information, and to revise or purify their propositions. Are these devices sentient? are they sapient? It doesn’t matter, as long as they can get the job done. Subsequent generations of AI devices have been built on the distributed neural networks that self-organize based on iterative feedback loops with the environment. Instead of a propositional knowledge base and interface which necessitate their interaction with language-users in order to learn, these newer devices more often rely on direct visual-auditory input from the environment, with pattern recognition software either built in or, via the neural net, self-organizing. It’s harder for humans to follow the reasoning of these kinds of machines because, even if the architecture and info processing works more like human brains than the old linguistically programmed AI devices. Are they more sentient and sapient than the earlier-generation devices, or less so?

        Nonetheless, because humans do happen to communicate their observations and theories about the world linguistically, the compiled and purified knowledge base does take the form of linguistically-encoded objects, properties, and forces, as well as propositions that link them together semantically. In this sense humans are always operating epistemologically inside “the Correlation.” As long as the words point into the world to which they refer, it’s possible to regard the Correlation as a pragmatic means toward the end of objective knowledge about the world, rather than as an inescapable confound of that knowledge itself. The empirical fact that humans can understand the knowledge provided by EKGs or robotic orbiting cameras, as well as the inferences generated by AI “entities,” suggests strongly that humans are able to set aside their Correlationist ways of thinking in order to interact with non-linguistic, non-propositional representations of and sources of information about the world.


        Comment by ktismatics — 8 July 2010 @ 9:39 am

  4. To attribute intentionality to another, one must have a grasp of cause-effect relationships among objects and beings other than oneself. Intention is, after all, the intent to cause some future effect. Non-human primates are pretty good at understanding social relationships within their species, but they aren’t good at understanding cause-effect relationships — recall from the post their inability to recognize that a hole in the bottom the horizontal tube will result in snacks falling through that hole. So cause-effect fail is perhaps their main limitation in acquiring language. Cause-effect isn’t immediately visible — it requires inference from visible phenomena, and frequently a sense of elapsed time between cause and effect. Ability to grasp cause-effect gives humans an advantage in understanding the world: we can understand not just visible objects and their properties and categories, but also the invisible forces by which objects affect each other. Of course there’s a tendency to conflate cause-effect with intentionality, inferring an invisible Intentional Agent who causes the drought or who pushes the boulder that rolls down the mountain killing your enemy…


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 July 2010 @ 6:29 am

  5. “He begins by asserting that only sapient beings can achieve a progressively more accurate understanding of reality.”

    Well, I did go on to read the whole post but it didn’t redeem the howling silliness of this premise. Either the point is tautological – understanding = sapience – or it has to ignore evolution, that is, all of the really ordinary ways that non-sapient critters feed back with their environments to produce ongoingly successful survival, reproduction and so on. In fact, I’d say that much of our sapience is a hindrance to environmental adaptation, and that it’s demonstrably just as likely to produce a long history of maladaptive speculation and delusion as it is increasing understanding.

    Hell, water does a pretty good job of ‘understanding’ and adapting to surfaces it falls on, as do pebbles. Is this somehow different than what we do when we understand reality? I don’t think so, other than the fuss we make about it, which is where propositions come in (latterly, I agree with you).

    Pete’s a smart guy and maybe he’s got a better point than this in context. But halftime’s over, back to Netherlands/Uruguay.


    Comment by Carl — 6 July 2010 @ 1:40 pm

  6. I’d say that the “progressively more accurate” qualifier is key here, Carl. Water and pebbles never seem to learn much, despite the billions of years of experience they’ve amassed. Individual non-sapient creatures learn things over the course of a lifetime, but as species over historical time they don’t progressively acquire a more accurate understanding of the world. When I write my follow-up post, the question will be whether self-reflexive awareness of mistakes and a shared norm of objectivity are essential for “purifying” truths about reality.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 July 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    • OK, so it’s the sapience=understanding tautology then. Because otherwise species over historical time do in fact adapt to the world in a way that might as well be described as understanding it; for example by developing camouflage, long necks and sticky tongues.

      I’d say water and pebbles understand the world plenty well, so progress for them is beside the point. As to human learning, it depends what we’re talking about. If we’re talking about religion, the old ones persist and new ones are born every minute without compelling evidence of progress. Speculative philosophy has been running around in circles for several thousand years, as the OOO neo-Platonism demonstrates nicely. In each, declension narratives are just as plausible as progress narratives. The same is true of science, but in that case there is ample technological demonstration of increasingly-better fit between our bumblings and the world, if not always wisdom about what to do with that.


      Comment by Carl — 7 July 2010 @ 11:09 am

  7. I agree with you, Carl: creatures gain survival advantages when random mutations happen to give them a “purer” view of their environments. I don’t think we need to fall into the panentheistic argument that species inevitably move toward greater and greater awareness of reality, since single-cell organisms still account for a hell of a lot of biomass on this planet. But the fittest survive even among the tiniest critters, and fitness means successfully coping with the environment as it really is.

    Failures in individual adaptation can be costly in terms of survival and reproduction, so mutations which enhanced the individual creature’s ability to do self-correction would have been adaptive. Sentience this self-corrective advantage via conscious awareness of error detection and intentionality in selecting alternatives. Beyond a certain point, however, misunderstandings about the world can perpetuate themselves for generations without triggering adverse effects for individuals or species. Sapient beings can even reify misunderstanding of the world, as you know: a ruling elite can incorporate error into socially constructed realities for the sake of mystifying interpersonal power relations or bestowing fetish value on certain objects. That I think is when the question of normativity comes into play. Does the norm of objectivity serve as the basis for continued advances in accurate knowledge of the world beyond the point where adaptive benefits would accrue to these advances? And as you observe about religion, a norm of objectivity doesn’t necessarily imply that the new ideas we come up with are getting us any closer to the gold standard.

    I think maybe if we continue this conversation, Carl, I’ll be spared the need of writing a separate post about the sapience and normativity part of Pete’s theory.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 July 2010 @ 12:19 pm

  8. Hey guys,

    Thanks for the interest. I should probably clear a few things up. The claim I ascribed to Brandom doesn’t mean that linguistic understanding is somehow prior to our abilities to practically discriminate between persistent objects. I agree that such a claim would be obviously empirically false. Rather, it was a claim about specifically conceptual understanding, and it was about explanatory rather than temporal priority. In essence, the claim is that the concept of ‘true assertion’ (or what Brandom would simply call a ‘fact’) has explanatory priority in relation to the concept of ‘existent object’, or that truth has explanatory priority in relation to existence. This doesn’t mean that one could properly grasp what a true assertion is without grasping what existent objects are. The propositions expressed by assertions are *about* existents after all. It’s simply that the order of explanation runs from truth to existence, rather than the other way around. You can see why this is the case if you take a loosely Quinean approach to existence, which takes it to be a matter of existential quantification. On that approach, we are committed to the existence of whatever is quantified over by statements we take to be true. None of this as yet says anything about the distinction between generic existence (shared by Alpha Centauri, the number 12, and Harry Potter) and real existence (which belongs to Alpha Centauri but not the other two), or about *what* precisely such real existents are (e.g., overlapping processes, discrete substances, monadic unities, etc.). However, as I’ve gone to some lengths to show in the essay, the link between truth and existence does gives us a clue as to how to approach these issues.

    The post (and Carl’s comments) also raise the issue of how we are to understand the very notion of understanding. There are obviously important issues about the distinction between grasping the concept of a thing and understanding the thing, but I won’t tackle these here as this requires a bunch of additional distinctions. However, I can briefly deal with the distinction between theoretical understanding (knowing-that) and practical understanding (knowing-how). To confirm the answer to Carl’s question, I think that only sapient creatures can count as knowing-that something, but that so counting is just what it is to be a sapient creature. This is because I don’t think that sapience is a biological category analogous to sentience. The reasoning behind this is a bit complicated, but it also means that I don’t think that anything that can’t count as knowing-that can legitimately count as knowing-how either. We ascribe any kind of understanding to non-linguistic animals in a way that is analogous to the way we ascribe it to other sapients, but the former ascriptions (and ascriptions of any other intentional states like desires) are derivative upon the latter. If you’re interested in these points I’d check out my ethics piece on spec heresy (http://speculativeheresy.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/the-rational-animal/) or the longer exchange I had with Jon about this stuff (http://deontologistics.wordpress.com/2010/02/27/brandom-and-ethics/). The former is much shorter and snappier but leaves out most of the details.

    This brings me to another important point: just as I don’t think that there’s non-discursive understanding in anything but a sense analogous to discursive understanding, I don’t think there’s non-discursive representation in anything but an sense analogous to discursive representation. This is because representation is an equally normative notion, insofar as it involves the possibility of misrepresentation. To explain this better, it’s useful to show how the position I take here is parallel to the one Kant takes in relation to teleology (which I also endorse). Kant thinks that there aren’t really final causes (or ends) in nature. There is nothing about a heart that dictates that it *should* beat. Nonetheless, thinking about biological systems in teleological (or functional) terms is very productive. The concept of function plays a regulative role in guiding our inquiry into the real causal mechanisms underlying the production of various biological phenomena. In Kant’s terms, the notion of an objective end (or a biological function) is thus a regulative rather than a constitutive notion. Similarly, I think the notion of representation is a regulative rather than constitutive notion. It can be useful in thinking about the causal mechanisms underlying the psychological phenomena we’re interested in studying, but it ultimately doesn’t pick out anything like an objective relation between a brain state (or whatever) and something at which it is directed.

    So, ultimately, what I’m trying to get across is that I’m not trying to tread on the toes of empirical science at all. I simply think that it should stick to describing empirical phenomena in empirical terms, and stay away from normatively laden terms derived from the ways we tend to understand one another as rational interlocutors. This means getting rid of notions such as understanding, representation, and function from the ways we describe all kinds of natural systems. This includes describing ourselves as natural systems, both as individuals and groups. We’ve got to be careful not to let the ordinary ways we understand one another from within our practices of relating to one another as rational agents colour the ways we understand one another from outside of those practices. This doesn’t mean that some of these notions can’t play a regulative role, but their usefulness in certain contexts certainly shouldn’t be taken to imply that they refer to anything real. They are a means for thinking about the relevant mechanisms, rather than part of those mechanisms.

    Do any of these points help make sense of my position?


    Comment by deontologistics — 7 July 2010 @ 2:48 pm

  9. Thanks for the clarifications, Pete. First regarding Brandom, you say that “our understanding of truth is more primitive than our understanding of existence” refers not to the stuff out there in the world, but rather to truth statements that make reference to stuff in the world. This was my first pass at unpacking “more primitive” in terms of language comprehension, which is what I thought you and Brandom had in mind. I thought it worthwhile, though, to acknowledge that language isn’t a given, but that it both evolved at the species level and develops at the individual level from the other direction: first the stuff in the world, then the pointing, then the words. It’s clear in your work that you wish to restrict your discussion to conceptual-linguistic propositions about stuff, as evidenced by your threefold distinction between the formal notion of the world, the formal notion of the Real, and the real notion of the Real. Only the real notion of the Real deals with the stuff that’s out there; the first two are totalities of truths about what’s out there.

    You acknowledge that the real notion of the Real is the ontological question, but you insist that it can be approached only through the formal notions; i.e., through propositions. I think this is right with respect to humans talking about what’s out there. Any sort of -ology deals with concepts and propositions. I don’t, e.g., believe that water or sunflowers have any sort of epistemology or ontology, even though they have direct involvement with and responsiveness to reality. So when philosophers or scientists or theologians make ontological statements, we have to acknowledge that even the referents of their statements, which are out there in the world, are first embedded in the structure of statements — which positions us first in formal notions of the world and the Real.

    In an earlier post I parodied the OOOers who, when asked how they know that objects are divided or that essences withdraw or whatever, respond by saying that you’ve made an improper shift from ontology to epistemology. But you’re contending that, among the -ologies, epistemology is more “primitive” because it gets at the underpinnings and assumptions of the logoi being put forward as truth statements. And I’m on board with this: “how do you know?” must be addressed; otherwise we’re subjecting ourselves to mystification.

    More later: I’ve only touched on the first part of your clarification.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 July 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    • I’m very much in agreement, although I think my disagreement with OOO runs deeper. Levi keeps saying that epistemology is only composed of questions such as ‘how do you know?’, but the more fundamental epistemological question from which all other follow is rather ‘what is knowledge?’. My contention is that you need to answer this *what* question before you can properly tackle anything like a *how* question, at least in principle if not in practice. This general problem repeats at the level of metaphysics. We’ve got to know *what* metaphysical knowledge is before we can have any interesting debates about what is metaphysically the case, or *how* we know it’s the case. Any attempt to answer the question of what metaphysics is in metaphysical terms is bound to get you into a vicious circle, and any account of knowledge which is given purely in metaphysical terms does this automatically (insofar as metaphysical knowledge is a species of knowledge in general).


      Comment by deontologistics — 7 July 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    • “I simply think that it should stick to describing empirical phenomena in empirical terms, and stay away from normatively laden terms derived from the ways we tend to understand one another as rational interlocutors. This means getting rid of notions such as understanding, representation, and function from the ways we describe all kinds of natural systems.”

      Cognitive psychologists use terms like understanding and representation all the time, so I’d say that the horse is already out of the barn if you want to assert philosophy’s historical right to define them. Part of what empirical psychology is all about is to figure out what humans understand, how acquire that understanding, and how they store that understanding. Early work assumed the inextricable links between thought and language, between knowledge and propositions, between representation and truth statements inherited from philosophy. These assumptions have been questioned, subjected to systematic investigation, and refined — sometimes radically so. In short, the self-corrective purification apparatus is hard at work on objectifying these historically normative-laden epistemological constructs ;)


      Comment by ktismatics — 8 July 2010 @ 9:58 am

    • Arriving at a priori assertions about what knowledge and learning must be like in order for sapient beings to understand reality seems not unlike a priori assertions about what reality must be like in order for sapient beings to understand it. I think both sets of assertions must be tested against what knowledge, learning, and the universe actually turn out to be. Who would think, for example, that reality would have to be comprised of 11-dimensional strings in order for the universe to function as it does, for sapient beings to evolve, etc.?

      OOOlogists might claim that reality must be comprised entirely of objects with withdrawn essences in order both for science to understand reality and to assure a place for change in the universe. This strikes me as either rationalism or mysticism. As you say, Pete, we need to know what these sorts of assertions are and how they are formulated. But claiming that knowledge and representation must be propositional and that progressive movement toward knowledge of the real relies on a priori deontological norms of objectivity seems fraught with the same problems. Who would have thought that human sapience evolved incrementally from single-cell organisms, or that human brains store knowledge in distributed interlinked bits that must be assembled on the fly in order to construct rational propositions?

      I think it’s reasonable to limit our discussion of representation, the formal structure of the Real, objectivity, and so on as particular kinds of cognitive and sociocultural output that humans generate in order to talk with one another about reality. Certainly all the historical candidates for claiming objectivity — revelation, reason, empirical science — have accumulated and talked about reality in the form of truth claims, their justification, and their purification. I also think that this purificatory way of formulating progressively more objective truth claims is far better than, say, Latour’s constructivist theory of science, where objectivity and power and rhetoric all jumble together in order to produce a winner.


      Comment by ktismatics — 8 July 2010 @ 10:38 am

      • Jon,

        Again, I’m not trying to step on cognitive psychologists toes. See my points about shorthand explanations below. For the most part, the use of the notion of ‘understanding’ is fine because it can be adequately cashed out in non-normative terms. The problem is that we’ve got to be explicitly aware of how it’s functioning in explanation in order to avoid category mistakes. Unfortunately, scientists are just as prone to such mistakes as anyone. See otherwise intelligent physicists who think they’ve discovered important facts about the nature of ‘consciousness’ (one of my pet hates). Of course, philosophy has traditionally provided a variety of theories of mind that need to be gotten rid of and replaced with hard empirical work. The problem is that we’ve got to avoid falling into the trap of psychologism, i.e., reading off how we should think from how we actually do. For instance, the law of non-contradiction isn’t valid because of any empirical facts of the matter, but because there simply can’t be anything like rational justification without it. Describing the empirical structures of human cognition, and describing the norms of thought are two different, if not unrelated, things.

        This also means I think the symmetry you posit between my own a priori adventures and those of OOO is mistaken. Of course, we can discover what the real structures (both psychological and sociological) underlying human epistemic endeavour, but these do not for that matter define *what* epistemic endeavour itself is. As I keep saying, sapience is not a natural category. This means that there is a perfectly good evolutionary history of any given kind of sapient creature, which shows how they develop the capacities necessary to trade in and keep track of reasons for their theoretical and practical commitments. Nonetheless, what it is to count as sapient is not tied down to any such history. We could create computers with a completely different causal structure that were able to play the game of reason giving with us, or encounter aliens of similar means. Indeed, our own psycho-social make up could change radically. None of this implies that the basic structure of rationality itself changes. On a related note, there are all kinds of norms that are historically instituted, but the fundamental norms of rationality are not, because they themselves describe what it is to so institute norms.

        In short, the description of how we *do* reason is an empirical matter, but the description of how we *should* reason, and thus what rationality *is*, is not. Insofar as the notion of knowledge is inextricably bound up with rationality (i.e., with the notion of justification), this means that the description of what knowledge qua knowledge is, is not equivalent to the empirical inquiry into the psycho-social structures underlying our knowledge producing behaviour.

        As a final note, I’m not trying to say ‘what knowledge and learning must be like in order for sapient beings to understand reality’. This seems to imply that we can make antecedent sense of the notion of ‘reality’, but this is precisely what I’ve been disputing. Most people who delve into metaphysics think they’ve got some kind of primitive grasp on what ‘reality’ means, and thus what it would be to describe its fundamental structure. The important part of my approach is that through describing the a priori structure of inquiry I can define what it is to talk about reality. This is not the same as saying *what* reality is. It’s a matter of saying *what it is* to say what reality is. If you can’t do the latter then I don’t think you can do the former properly, and I don’t think you can do the latter in a posteriori terms. The whole point of my approach is to try and demonstrate that metaphysics is continuous with science – that metaphysics is an a posteriori discipline – but one can only do this a priori.


        Comment by deontologistics — 9 July 2010 @ 1:34 am

  10. So, ultimately, what I’m trying to get across is that I’m not trying to tread on the toes of empirical science at all. I simply think that it should stick to describing empirical phenomena in empirical terms, and stay away from normatively laden terms derived from the ways we tend to understand one another as rational interlocutors. This means getting rid of notions such as understanding, representation, and function from the ways we describe all kinds of natural systems.

    Pete, how would you locate the social sciences, or historical analysis, within this schema? If one engages in analysis of, say, fealty structures in early medieval Europe, or the institutionalised research practices of contemporary academics, I think one is deploying concepts of understanding, representation, function, etc. as analytic categories, and doing so empirically. (Though we wouldn’t always be using the terms in exactly the same way as when we talk about brain-states, obviously).

    My question is related, I think, to some of the claims you make in the Speculative Heresy piece you link to. You write:

    Normative statuses are social statuses, they are roles and scores that we take on insofar as we are involved within a certain practice.

    You then go on:

    This does not mean that normative statuses are thereby real properties of things, not all predicates are genuine properties.

    Why would a social role not be a real (social) property? Such properties can certainly be studied empirically. In the post you use a following analogy:

    Being a rational subject is analogous to being a goal keeper in a football (or soccer) match, and having a particular commitment is like having a yellow card.

    I can check empirically whether or not a person is a goal keeper in a football match, and whether or not they have a yellow card in that match. If I’m say an ethnographer of football matches (or a medical researcher studying injury-causes, perhaps), I can even do so as part of a larger academic research endeavour. So this analogy seems to me to on its face to support the position you disagree with, rather than (what I take to be) your own…

    This is a separate point, but: w/r/t the concept of function or teleological language in the discussion of biological phenomena, which you mention in the comment above, there is of course a good reason why this kind of language or analysis can be legitimate in evolutionary biology: evolutionary pressures will tend to select for specific biological traits, which can then be understood as being ‘for’ interaction with the environment that produced the selection-pressures (or as performing a specific function within the organism – pumping blood, say). I don’t think I know (or have forgotten) Kant’s comments on biology [I really should read the 3rd Critique, which judging from google looks to be the relevant text] – but it seems misguided to give an account of teleological or functional language in biology along Kantian ‘regulative’ lines when there’s a much more direct explanation and justification for the use of such language & conceptual resources – an explanation that wouldn’t have been available to (pre-Darwin) Kant.

    However – I should say that I haven’t read your longer work, and am depressingly busy at the moment and will be offline a fair bit, so responding to my comments is probably a pretty thankless task and no worries if you don’t.


    Comment by duncan — 8 July 2010 @ 3:24 am

  11. Hi Duncan,

    Don’t worry, these are all sensible questions. I obviously can’t go into all of this in too much detail, but I’ll do my best to allay your concerns. I won’t tackle the points in order I’m afraid.

    1. I’ll tackle the point about biological functions first. Obviously Kant is pre-darwinian, and much of his view on the matter of teleology are suspect. However, I think that it is possible to extract his account of teleological notions as regulative rather than constitutive from his more problematic views, and that this stripped down Kantian approach is correct. The thing about selection pressures is that they although they partially determine the success criteria which constitute a function, they underdetermine these criteria. So, there are some obvious cases in which we can say that a mutated organ (or even a whole organism) is mal-functioning, because it is failing to fill the role that seems to have been selected for, but there are also cases in which such mal-formations turn out to produce sustainable adaptations that occupy different evolutionary niches. The way I tend to describe this underdetermination is to say that environmental factors don’t provide *normative closure*, they don’t determine criteria which fix what is correct and incorrect in all cases in advance. None of this is meant to imply that we should stop using function talk in biology, just that we should stop metaphysically hypostatising functions.

    All this equally applies to teleosemantic approaches to representational content. They want to say that, for example, the brain state in a frog which is produced when a fly is detected, which triggers it to catch the fly with its tongue, *represents* flies because that’s the function it was selected for over the course of the frog’s evolutionary history. This means that even though frogs will reliably swallow lead pellets fired past them, to the point at which they die, we can say that in these cases the brain state mis-represents the pellets as flies, because it wasn’t selected to detect pellets. The problem is that if all flies die out, but are systematically replaced by another adequate food source that is adequately detected by the frog in the same way, we don’t then want to say that it’s nonetheless mis-representing these new insects (or whatever) as flies. The fact that it doesn’t completely determine such criteria of mis-representation in advance is a failure to achieve normative closure, and thus the notion of representation can only be applied in a limited or analogous fashion.

    2. On the topic of my views of the social science, I’ve written a bit of a longer post on the matter (http://deontologistics.wordpress.com/2009/09/04/eliminativism-and-the-real/). The basic gist of my position is that I think there can be hard social sciences which study the regularities present in social systems in ways that don’t appeal to the common modes of understanding we used to think about them. This is to say that I think we can study social systems from an external rather than an internal point of view, as if we were aliens examining a peculiar ecosystem on a strange world. This isn’t to say that I think we should get rid of our internal perspective, which is to say, our way of thinking about social structures as groups of rational agents that make decisions, have shared norms, and shared history, just that I think we need to be careful to keep these two separate, and when we do (for convenience) use hybrid forms of explanation, to be very explicit that this is what we’re doing.

    3. On the topic of the difference between normative statuses and real properties, it’s again important to emphasise this difference between internal and external perspectives. However, it’s also important to point out that concepts with normative content, like ‘goal keeper’, can also have empirical content. A better example of this is the concept ‘legal adult’. The consequences of being a legal adult are the possession of a whole bunch of extra normative statuses, such as additional rights and additional responsibilities, but the criteria which mark one as a legal adult are largely empirical (e.g., being over 18 years of age). This means that (assuming we ignore other possible normatively articulated criteria) one can identify legal adults in a purely empirical fashion. The same is the case for goal keepers, you can empirically pick out the person who stands in goal, who wears the correct shirt, and whose name is written on the roster, etc. These are empirically discernible matters that give one good reason to count someone as a goal keeper. This doesn’t mean that the significance of being a goal keeper (or a legal adult) can be captured in empirical terms. This is because the empirical description of these categories can only identify what they *will* do, or at best what they will *tend* to do. There are cases in which this will roughly line up with what they *should* do, but there will also be cases in which these pull apart.

    What this means is that one can look at social roles in two ways, in terms of the norms that constitute them (internal), and in terms of the actually behavioural practices that instantiate these norms (external). To provide a simplified example: we can think of a country in which public officials are taken to have certain very particular rights and responsibilities, but most officials actually fail to live up to these responsibilities. Moreover, this sort of failure is not only widespread but essentially tolerated (even if it’s true extent is not properly understood). Here we see a difference between the content of the normative status that is implemented and the actual social regularities that arise from the behaviour of instituting that status.

    In short, although there is an important link between normative statuses and the social behaviours which institute and arise from them, we need to be careful not to run them together if we are going to properly understand the real causal mechanisms underlying the production of social phenomena.

    I hope some of this helps. I’m still trying to work out the best way to articulate this position.


    Comment by deontologistics — 8 July 2010 @ 5:23 am

    • This all seems very sensible. Max Weber’s fact/value distinction is in malodor these days because in social practice it’s much more difficult to disentangle them than in principle, and acting as if they’re always-already in principle disentangled leads to lots of mischief. Is that a line of discussion you’re familiar with, Pete?

      John, on the question of process-purified objectivity may I recommend Sandra Harding?


      Comment by Carl — 8 July 2010 @ 11:26 am

    • I’ve been skipping around a bit, so maybe I’m behind or off track. In what way is Sandra Harding relevant to process-purified objectivity, Carl? And in what way is her position relevant specifically to me, inasmuch as I’ll probably agree with Pete on this point? That is, there can be ways of evaluating a statement in terms of its popularity, sociocultural influence, economic return, even survival value, as well as its objectivity. Each of these evaluation criteria can be regarded as normative. Means can be established for evaluating the extent to which a statement vis-a-vis each of these norms, and methods can be deployed for moving the statement further along the normative continuum toward more popularity, return, objectivity, and so on.


      Comment by ktismatics — 8 July 2010 @ 11:36 am

      • Hi Carl,

        I’m afraid I’m not as well schooled in sociology as I’d really like to be, so I’m only marginally familiar with debates surrounding the fact/value distinction. I am really interested in this though, as one of the ways of looking at my approach is as trying to re-draw this distinction in really sharp terms by means of working out a distinction between different kinds of discourse (and the kinds of truth that correspond to them). So, any potential problems are problems for me, though I think my approach might have different resources for addressing them than Weber. Thanks for pointing it out!


        Comment by deontologistics — 9 July 2010 @ 1:39 am

  12. Thanks Pete, this is really clear and on-point and helpful as an articulation of your position. I’m going to mull it over and read some more of your stuff hopefully when I have time. My gut feeling is I’ll end up disagreeing with the distinction you draw between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ views on social practices/roles – my rule of thumb is that it’s hard to enforce distinctions of this sort in a philosophically-sustainable way – but I’d like to get a better feel for the apparatus in play. In any case, thanks for the careful response. In my experience of bugging people about their intellectual projects in comment threads, it’s rare for theorists to communicate effectively the reasoning behind their work, and respond in a relevant way to questions. So it’s much appreciated :-)


    Comment by duncan — 8 July 2010 @ 7:13 am

    • Thanks, I’m just glad that people are interested. As I say, the apparatus isn’t fully developed yet, but it’s slowly coming together. I hate to throw more posts your way, but I’ve just remembered that I’ve perhaps written more extensively about this whole internal/external distinction in my two posts on Latour, and in my big post on norms:-




      Take from these what you will.

      As a final point, although I accept that there are some difficulties with ‘enforcing’ the kind of philosophical distinctions I’m proposing scientific inquiry should be sensitive to, I don’t think it’s necessarily as difficult as it might at first seem. As I said above, I’m not asking for biologists to stop using functional talk, psychologists to stop using representational talk, or sociologists to stop using intentional talk, but simply trying to get them to recognise that these kind of vocabulary play regulative roles. The best way to think about this is to understand the difference between shorthand and proper explanations of phenomena. We always need shorthand explanations (e.g., ‘the american war of independence was driven by *the will of the people* to be free of English rule’), we can’t get away from using them in any of our epistemic endeavours. The trick is to be aware that they’re shorthand, and thus recognise that they need to be cashed out when our explanatory needs shift (e.g., we have won’t find any entity or collective state like *the will of the people* in a more detailed analysis of the socio-political factors involved in the genesis of the conflict).


      Comment by deontologistics — 8 July 2010 @ 7:54 am

  13. OK so I apparently can’t help myself from continuing the conversation at least briefly. Just on the question of frogs and normative closure, i.e. the first point in your comment: I agree that explanations based on evolution by natural selection can’t of course provide a real judgement of ‘correctness’ w/r/t whether an organism fulfills its supposedly natural ‘function’. To claim this (as various political and ethical stances do, either explicitly or implicitly) is to completely misunderstand how evolutionary explanation works. I definitely agree with this.

    My strong inclination is to dispute, however, that the concept of ‘normative closure’ is the best one to articulate what’s going wrong here. That is – I’d dispute that ‘normative closure’ defined this way applies to any forms of representation or functional fitness [which I take you to be suggesting?], and I therefore don’t think it can be used to distinguish misuses of the concept of representation or function [or whatever other terms best describe what we’re trying to pick out] in discussion of biology etc. Taking the example of representations of flies (or not): I’d dispute the idea that the lack of normative closure that afflicts the frog in your scenario distinguishes the frog’s brain-processes from any of the representations we ourselves deploy as exemplary of ‘real’ representations. So, for example, the words of a language can and do change their referents – their applications are not fully predetermined ahead of time. Similarly for your and my thoughts or even moods. Our conceptual apparatus is, I’d imagine, in most respects considerably more extensive than the frog’s, but I don’t see how it differs from the frog’s in any of the formal ways picked out by the concept of ‘normative closure’.

    The point here would be similar to Derrida’s in Signature Event Context, though without I think requiring the phenomenological apparatus that’s lurking in the background of most of Derrida’s stuff. Representation is always partly determined by context, and context can never be fully predetermined, it’s always to an extent open; therefore no representation can ever involve normative closure in this sense. Or – another articulation of what I take to be the same point from the recent philosophical canon – Wittgenstein’s discussion of the conviction that in following a rule everything is laid out in advance, like iron rails running to infinity (a conviction that Wittgenstein is critical of, and I agree with him). [I’d also as an aside and as a final name-drop be curious what you make of Putnam’s stuff about external realism, though it’s longer since I read that, and you may have addressed all this elsewhere, and anyhow it’s all just different ways of trying to hit the same point.]

    Point being that I read your comment as contrasting the frog’s putative representations with a more proper form of representation that can achieve normative closure, because it’s governed by criteria than can in some sense determine all of its applications in advance – and I don’t see any reason to believe that such normative closure can even in principle be achieved.


    Comment by duncan — 8 July 2010 @ 7:59 am

    • Well, there’s a very good sense in which it can’t. I don’t think that there’s anything special about human behaviour which means that we achieve normative closure when the frog doesn’t. The point, which is actually derived from Wittgenstein’s rule following considerations, is that you can’t read off norms from any kind of causal dispositions, be they those of human systems or not. You simply determine what one should do on the basis of what some people are disposed to do, at least, you can’t do so in all cases. Does this mean that there are no norms? Well, it means that norms aren’t *real* insofar as they aren’t objectively determinable. As such, there aren’t any *real* representations either.

      Nonetheless, from within our practices, we do institute norms which we take to be completely determinate. This ideal character of norms is found in the fact that whenever we encounter a case in which there is some dispute about how the norm should be interpreted (e.g.., whether some behaviour is in accord or not) we can engage in an argument about how the norm should be interpreted, i.e., about what it’s content is, in which we can give fully legitimate reasons for one interpretation or another. One way of describing the above point about the inability to read norms of causal dispositions is to say that although facts about objective matters can be given as reasons within arguments about interpretation, they are never dispositive (or deductive) reasons, but only probative (or inductive) reasons. In short, its a constitutive feature of discourse that we take what we say to have a determinate content, but this determinateness is an ideal that is cashed out in terms of the possibility of further interpretative debates that carry out the process of determining the content, rather than in terms of some special entity like a *meaning* which determines everything in advance.

      The difference between ascribing intentional states to other rational agents (sapients) and describing them in a derivative fashion to animals (sentients) is that the latter can’t get involved in debates about the precise content of the states ascribed to them. They play no role in the process of progressively determining the content of their theoretical and practical commitments. This produces an interesting analogy between biological and technological functions. Neither are completely determined by objective facts about the things they are ascribed to, but in the latter case we can claim some special kind of authority to stipulate how the function should be understood in each case, meaning that there is always the potential for a progressive determination of its content.


      Comment by deontologistics — 8 July 2010 @ 8:20 am

      • Thanks Pete, that’s really interesting – sorry our comments crossed in the mail.

        this determinateness is an ideal that is cashed out in terms of the possibility of further interpretative debates that carry out the process of determining the content, rather than in terms of some special entity like a *meaning* which determines everything in advance.

        Ah, yes, I see, I like this a lot. Part of the problem here may be that I’ve not read any Brandom, and am therefore missing a fair bit of the direction of your comments. Brandom’s written rather too much for me to honestly promise to do my homework on this, but I should definitely get a better sense of the resources you’re using, since I think I misunderstood you here. (You’re saying that what differs between the frog’s ‘representations’ and our own isn’t the achievability or non-achievability of normative closure in any strong sense, but the frog’s inability to participate in the conversation in which collective assessments of its normative criteria are hashed out? Or something more sophisticated along those lines, anyhow?)

        I like what you say about shorthand in the comment above, also. One of the things that bugs me in my own (largely social-theoretic) areas of immediate research interest, is the way in which ‘functionalism’ is so regularly beaten up on. There is an accurate critique of the idea of a social system that mysteriously self-sustains, but the content of this critique is apparently regularly forgotten, and ‘functionalism’ is deplored even in scenarios (analogous to the evolutionary-biology one) where a perfectly sensible explanation of why behaviours or structures that serve a particular function as part of a larger unit would systematically get produced and sustained. Of course one needs then an adequate explanation of what the mechanism for this production & sustenance would be – an explanation of why and to what extent ‘functionalism’ is a legitimate shorthand analytic tool. But this can often be done, I think.

        These are my preoccupations though, and needn’t concern anybody else. I’ll definitely look at the posts you link to at some point when I’m not supposed to be working. :-)


        Comment by duncan — 8 July 2010 @ 9:17 am

      • In passing, agree with you Duncan about functionalism-bashing. Marx was a functionalist. There’s nothing inherent in sussing out how things work that says we must then celebrate and support them; although an appreciation of the complexity of things may inspire a certain modesty when it comes to formulating problems and solutions.


        Comment by Carl — 8 July 2010 @ 11:40 am

      • Carl – thanks.

        Pete – rereading I think I see where you’re coming from much better – I misunderstood your emphasis in the frog example – sorry about that – I thought you were doing more work with a stronger concept of ‘normative closure’ than you are. All this is making me think I should read Brandom.


        Comment by duncan — 8 July 2010 @ 1:32 pm

  14. Duncan have you seen Reid’s recent post on Marxism at Planomenology (link on my weblog)? He extends Pete’s ideas about normativity to Marx, focusing on the norm of societal rationality. I don’t know the primary sources well enough to comment on whether this is an accurate interpretation of Marx’s thought, but I like the idea, which Reid lays out very clearly.

    It’s clear that humans can arrive at more objectively accurate truth statements inadvertently, or in pursuit of other objectives. E.g., an attorney serving as his client’s advocate can discover facts about a case; a pharmaceutical company looking for new profit opportunities can discover therapeutic effects of an engineered molecule; a builder can discover ancient artifacts digging a foundation. But the norms of objectivity still apply in evaluating these discoveries, even if the norm didn’t motivate their discoverers. And of course criteria for evaluating truth statements’ objectivity are themselves subject to progressive purification.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 July 2010 @ 4:27 pm

  15. Duncan have you seen Reid’s recent post on Marxism at Planomenology

    Yes, I saw it – I disagree with it as an interpretation of Marx – I don’t think it’s accurate to claim that Marx has a priori norms as the basis for his critical project – Marx is sort of viscerally opposed to the idea – but it’d take a lot of interpretive legwork to have the debate.

    [In a nutshell, I think Reid’s misreading footnote 4 to chapter 15; Reid’s right to say that Marx’s critique here applies well to contemporary reductionism, but that’s not because Marx is critical of the application of natural-scientific methods to account for the emergence of the ideal. The thrust of Marx’s critique is rather that ‘abstract materialism’ is unaware of the way in which its own conceptual categories are also historically produced and tethered (is unaware of the contingent historical conditions of its own emergence) – Marx wants us to be aware that our own scientific categories aren’t ahistorically accessible – that these are anthropologically unusual perspectives that can be analysed in the same ethnographic way as perspectives we don’t share. This is why Marx takes his materialism to be historical (rather than abstract). If you’re interested, NP’s written a lot about this – my interpretation is just channeling NP’s – see for instance this old post, although more recent formulations that I can’t find on rough theory right now might be more developed.

    If it helps, I think Habermas is probably a better fit than Marx for a lot of Reid’s post. E.g.:

    the proper way of relating the scientific and political projects in Marx’s work is through a concept of rational progress, according to which society has gradually shed most of the ideological distortions that, by infecting rational discourse with irrational appeals to authority (or non-ideological, purely repressive appeals to brute force, although the two have always historically be intertwined), both hindered the possibility of objective science and burdened society with an unjustifiable asymmetrical recognitive structure based upon the preservation of material inequalities.]


    Comment by duncan — 8 July 2010 @ 11:07 pm

    • Thanks Duncan. I think I’m rather a modernist on scientific progress, though I’m not particularly sanguine about its ability to bring forward a more just or rational political-economic world.

      On this thread we’ve talked mostly about a bio-psychological rather than an ethnographic history of truth statements and understanding the real. But it sounds like we’ve pursued a similar thrust to Marx in trying to recognize that the current status of sapience and normative objectivity aren’t a priori and unchanging but have emerged incrementally over (pre)historical time and will continue to change in the future.

      To the extent that norms are descriptive of what works in the present then I’m in. E.g., a “rule-based” expert system isn’t ahistorically prescriptive of how one always “ought” to diagnose a disease or whatever; rather, the system models what presently constitutes the generally agreed-upon methods for doing the task. But these normative practices have been built up over time and will continue to change in the future. The norms are “tethered,” as you say.


      Comment by ktismatics — 8 July 2010 @ 11:58 pm

      • these normative practices have been built up over time and will continue to change in the future.

        Yes, this is the thing – I’m all for this kind of approach to normativity, and (like Marx) tend to kick against claims about the ahistorical or a priori status of normative demands. A lot of people evidently feel that if norms aren’t transhistorical in a strong sense, they’re not real norms: not really binding, not really real. This makes as little sense to me as saying that one’s love for one’s partner or children is unreal because it’s not transhistorically or universally applicable. (And I tend to feel that love is in plenty of scenarios a better starting point for analysis of normativity than, say, reason; though this is a whole other issue.)

        That said, I’ve liked a great deal the resources that Pete has been deploying in this thread, and my sense is that Pete would take a different stance on at least some of these issues. So I’m interested now in squaring that circle: I’ve never really done any systematic study on these kinds of issues.


        Comment by duncan — 9 July 2010 @ 9:31 am

      • Well, I think the important thing to remember is that both myself and Reid aren’t saying that *all* norms are ahistorical. Most norms are instituted by particular social groups at particular historical times, and tend to change and develop both implicitly and explicitly along with those groups. This is the rough significance of the idea of ‘tradition’. It’s just that we think that what norms are is something which can’t be explained in non-normative terms, and thus that what it is to institute and explicate norms must be governed by fundamental norms which are not themselves historically instituted. Of course, the behaviour which corresponds to these norms emerges in time, but the point is that there’s an important distinction between the behavioural regularities and the content of norms.


        Comment by deontologistics — 9 July 2010 @ 9:49 am

      • “what it is to institute and explicate norms must be governed by fundamental norms which are not themselves historically instituted. Of course, the behaviour which corresponds to these norms emerges in time”

        Yes I want to give this thought its due, which for me will probably require specific examples. You mentioned non-contradiction earlier — it’s a norm that may have been implicit in thought and language long before it was made explicit by logicians, but now the norm can be used restrospectively to evaluate statements asserted prior to the norm having been made explicit. I want to think about certain aspects of the scientific method in this light, where non-contradiction is subjected to various qualifiers like probabilities and percentages of variance accounted for and so on. Perhaps all such qualifiers are gauged according to a “pure” norm toward which they point: 100% probable, 100% of the variance.


        Comment by ktismatics — 9 July 2010 @ 10:19 am

      • It’s just that we think that what norms are is something which can’t be explained in non-normative terms, and thus that what it is to institute and explicate norms must be governed by fundamental norms which are not themselves historically instituted.

        Yes, this is what I’m inclined to dispute – but I really need to do more reading both of your own work and the tradition you’re using before I feel competent to talk it through properly. It depends how you mean it, too, I guess (and I can find this out by reading your work properly, which I will do eventually!) What does it mean for a norm not to be historically instituted? If the claim is that norms are supernatural in origin, I understand the position – this is a credible view, but not the one I think you endorse? On the other hand, when you say these fundamental norms are not historically instituted, do you mean that they emerge from biological invariants in the human animal, and therefore are not vulnerable to the vicissitudes of human cultural change? Or do you mean not historically instituted in a stronger sense, where history would include evolutionary history? If the former I can see where the argument would go, since it’d be about certain argumentative dispositions being biologically hardwired – but I don’t think that’s what you’re saying?

        Like I say though, all this can almost certainly be resolved for me when I have time to actually read stuff…


        Comment by duncan — 9 July 2010 @ 10:57 am

      • Is the argument sort of a larger-cultural-sphere version of the What is it like to be a bat argument? Where we can in principle give a full account of the empirical biological & social apparatus and activities that produce bat-consciousness, or norms, but there’s a residual mystery about the phenomenological experience of batiness, or responsibility?


        Comment by duncan — 9 July 2010 @ 11:01 am

      • (Sorry to bug you about this – I’m genuinely interested to figure out how your argument works, but just don’t have time right now to do my due diligence…)


        Comment by duncan — 9 July 2010 @ 11:06 am

      • The argument isn’t meant to be either Nagelian or Chomskian, as I have a profound dislike of both. The ahistorical norms aren’t instituted by some supernatural entity (a metaphysical explanation), or hard wired biologically (psychologism of some form or another). Rather, they are transcendental. What this means is that they are the conditions of the possibility of rationality (and normativity) as such. I have a nice little argument I use to prove the existence of such norms, which I call the argument from the primary bind.

        First, it’s interesting to note that in argument it’s entirely possible for us to deny that we are governed by the same norms governing the use of certain words. We often get to a point at which we realise that the way we are using the same word is just too divergent for us to be talking about the same thing. At this point it’s feasible for us to say something like ‘I just use x differently from you’ and then try to move the argument on to some actual common ground. There is analogous move that we are never allowed to perform in argument. We can never say something to the effect of ‘I just argue differently from you’, or ‘I’m just governed by different norms of argument’. If there are no common norms of argument that we are bound by in arguing then there is no good sense in which we’re doing the same thing. Denying that there are some common norms of argument effectively undermines the possibility of argument itself. Thus, there must be some norms of argument that we are bound by simply in virtue of being involved in it, which function as conditions of the possibility of argument. There might of course be subsidiary norms of argument, which are instituted, but there must be the common fundamental norms on top of which these would be added.

        This doesn’t establish what these norms are, only that they are. The trick is to work out what these transcendental norms are from scratch. this is what I’ve elsewhere called fundamental deontology.


        Comment by deontologistics — 9 July 2010 @ 2:21 pm

      • Thanks Pete – again, sorry to bug you. Like I say, I’m genuinely interested and am going to do my homework in the background – totally understand if responding to these comments now is pointless.

        If that’s clear though! ;-) From my (underinformed!) perspective, there are a few issues here:

        I don’t see why a norm can’t be transcendental in the sense of being a condition of possibility for rationality as such, and still be analysable as produced by such-and-such a historical or social set of empirical phenomena. It seems to me that there are plenty of people who would think something like this? (And you may think this! But just to be clear:) For instance: the view that certain biological brain-functions are required for a creature to be capable of rationality. Or (more controversially probably): the view that certain socially contingent belief structures are necessary for a creature to be rational. What I mean is – the question of what’s producing the norms we’re talking about – indeed, the question of what these norms ‘are’, in a potentially fuller sense than that available to us via introspection (including, as it were, collective introspection) – seems to be independent of the question of whether or not the norms are transcendental in this sense (i.e. conditions of possibility of rationality as such). So we could run our transcendental argument – demonstrate that certain norms are conditions of possibility of rationality – and then inquire further as to the nature of these norms, and decide that they are in fact a kind of brain-function, or whatever. What I mean is – saying that these norms are transcendental conditions of the possibility of rationality as opposed to being biologically hard-wired (or, for that matter, supernaturally instituted) seems like a category error to me? If this is what you’re saying? It may be that we can’t pursue our investigations beyond the transcendental argument, and therefore we’re stuck sort of black-boxing or fiating these fundamental norms (like physicists black-box or fiat certain physical phenomena: the claim would be that we’ve just hit bedrock here, at least for now – we can’t figure out how to find out any more about the nature of these things, and may never be able to.) But we haven’t established that we’ve hit bedrock when we’ve made an argument about conditions of possibility – at least I don’t see why. And while I think I might share your suspicions about Chomsky’s work in linguistics (not that I know much about it), it seems to me that there are plausible empirical research programs into the social and biological nature of normative stuff – i.e. it doesn’t seem intuitively plausible to me that we’ve hit bedrock w/r/t the analysis of norms, when we’ve engaged in a transcendental argument.

        On the primary bind argument, two things.

        First – I’m sceptical about the empirical accuracy of this: We can never say something to the effect of ‘I just argue differently from you’, or ‘I’m just governed by different norms of argument’.. It seems to me that people do say these sorts of things? Just as an example: contemporary debates over the legitimacy of various forms of religious discourse – the ‘militant atheists’ claiming that theology is basically nonsense, and (some) theologians saying that the ‘militant atheists’ are failing to understand the discursive demands and criteria of the theological space. The latter move (which I’m sympathetic to, I should say, even though I’m an atheist myself) seems to me, at least in some cases, a lot like ‘we just argue differently from you’. But this is just a random example: this sort of thing seems to me to happen all the time? It seems like the bread and butter of a lot of intellectual debate is debate over appropriate norms of argument? That this is one of the main reasons why online intellectual discussions get ‘meta’ so often, for instance?

        But second – I’m inclined to dispute this: If there are no common norms of argument that we are bound by in arguing then there is no good sense in which we’re doing the same thing. Denying that there are some common norms of argument effectively undermines the possibility of argument itself. The issue here would be that ‘family resemblance’ is a credible way of finding unity in a set of disparate things. So – one way in which different practices can all be part of the same practice (e.g. rational argument) is that they all share a common set of properties (e.g. fundamental norms). But another way is that they don’t all share a single common property or set of properties, but are nonetheless bound together by a large number of partially overlapping properties, creating a ‘family resemblance’ bundle of different discursive practices, that can sensibly be taken as a whole, but that lack any fundamental unifying common element. I don’t myself have any particular view as to this, I don’t think, with regard to rational discourse? It may be that there are common features to all rational argument (however that’s defined)? But it doesn’t seem logically necessary to me – it seems like an empirical question? Certainly I think that the ‘family resemblance’ approach is a very useful way to approach a lot of social stuff. (To continue with the religion example, I think it’s doubtful that there’s a unifying ‘essence of religion’, rather than a family-resemblance bundle of different social practices we can legitimately group together as religious – but this is just an example and you may disagree; the point is obviously a broader one.)

        Anyway, I’m finding it really interesting to think this stuff through, but I realise the conversation’s sub-optimal from your point of view, so, like I say, I’m not intending to create any annoying local discursive norms that place further demands on your time.


        Comment by duncan — 9 July 2010 @ 10:16 pm

      • Don’t worry about it, I have written a lot about these issues before, but I understand I’ve written *a lot* about them, and this makes it a bit hard to navigate. I really would recommend this post: http://deontologistics.wordpress.com/2009/10/25/dissecting-norms/ as much of the reasoning you’re putting forward rests on what I think is a category mistake that I’ve tried to dissect there.

        I think that the ordinary way in which many people use the term ‘norm’ actually equivocates between two things: collective behavioural regularities (and the causal mechanisms underlying them) and collective practical commitments. I call the former practices and the latter norms proper. Practices can be completely empirically described, and their emergence and origin can be completely empirically described. This means that both transcendental and instituted norms are manifest in particular practices (which given the definition above include the various, perhaps biologically inbuilt, mechanisms that underlie and maintain those practices). There is an important link between norms and practices, insofar as, on the one hand, our talking about norms (both in instituting and deploying them) is itself behaviour the contribution of which to the maintenance of practices can be empirically studied, and on the other, objective facts about our practices (what we do) can be used in arguments about the content of the norm (what we should do). Remember that behaviour, and thus practices, underdetermine the content of the norm viewed as a *reason* for action. Nonetheless, we treat the norm as *implicit* within our practices, and this is why we can draw on facts about our practices as reasons in the interpretative debates which aim to make the norm *explicit*.

        The difference between transcendental and instituted norms is really a matter of how we argue about their content. With instituted norms we effectively try to grasp the *intention* behind the behaviour of those who have instituted the norm, be it in a single act, or over the course of a historical tradition. This means isolating either individuals or groups whose behaviour is authoritative and then using facts about that behaviour as reasons in our interpretative debates. In the case of transcendental norms, although the practices do come into existence at a certain point (although most likely as a gradual development), facts about these practices play no direct role in arguing for what the content of the norms are. At best they can suggest ways of looking at what the norms are, but can never legislate against more consistent interpretations. This is different way of looking at the denial of psychologism I mentioned earlier: the law of non-contradiction (for example) is wrong independently of when people started explicitly referencing it, and independently of whether people are actually any good at applying it. It’s possible for us (through argument) to show that there are transcendental norms that we are all bound by that *no one* has been following properly, but we are nonetheless all bound by in virtue of attempting to say anything whatsoever.

        My beef with Chomskian arguments is this: I think it’s perfectly possible that we have some hard wired mechanisms that make us roughly act in accordance with any set of norms you like, but this is an empirical fact. Chomsky wants something like an a priori argument for the necessity of certain empirical facts, and I don’t buy it. It strikes me that it’s equally empirically possible that the mechanisms which enable us to follow any given set of norms (including fundamental ones) are partially or fully acquired and differ in their precise instantiation from individual to individual. In short, I’m completely behind the idea of multiple realisability of the capacities necessary to engage in discourse. This is why I say that we could come across aliens or build computers that would have completely different internal structure that we could nonetheless play the game of giving and asking for reasons with.

        In response to your points on the primary bind:-

        1. I think that if you doubt the empirical accuracy of the argument, you’re kind of missing the point. Perhaps I should explicitly replace ‘can’ with ‘may’. It’s not that it’s impossible to say ‘I’m not governed by any rules of argument’, but in doing so you undermine the ability of your interlocutor to correct you if you make moves that wreck the argument completely. For instance, if I argue that P, because Q, because P, I’ve argued in a circle. This is no better than bare assertion – simply asserting the truth of something without reason. If there are no common rules governing argument, then you can’t in principle correct this horrible error, and this error has the effect of ending argument entirely. Now, of course, someone might (as many Nietzscheans do) make the claim that there are no common norms of argument, and then proceed to argue perfectly well in line with them, so that such correction is not necessary. Yes, in a certain sense argument with them was still possible, but in another sense it was already in principle made impossible.

        2. As I did note, there can be such things as subsidiary norms of argument, which are instituted. It’s possible for two groups to diverge along the lines of what subsidiary norms they accept. For instance, these norms might restrict legitimate forms of deference within argument (which is important in the clash between science and creationism), thus modifying the structure of justification. This is no skin of my nose, as the claim is that there must be *some* transcendental norms of argument that they nonetheless have in common.

        3. The only way for the family resemblance approach to work is to abandon the idea that argument is a normative matter, i.e., that one can argue correctly and incorrectly. At this point we collapse into Nietzschean and Latourian views of argument in which they are trials of strength in which the only value of reasons is to be understood in terms of their causal effects (e.g., in persuading another). Of course, we can talk about arguments from the perspective of analysing their causal dynamics as practices, but really this is not to view them *as* arguments. The whole point of the primary bind is that if one abandons the idea that there are common rules governing argument one gives up the ability to give reasons for why someone shouldn’t argue the way they are. Yes, one still *can* do so without reasons, but one *shouldn’t*, and if anyone argues you back to *why* you do, you *can’t* give a good answer.


        Comment by deontologistics — 10 July 2010 @ 1:25 am

      • Thanks Pete – this is great stuff. In no particular order…

        I’ve not read much Chomsky, so this probably doesn’t count for much, but I totally agree with that critique and the argument behind it.

        On this – if one abandons the idea that there are common rules governing argument one gives up the ability to give reasons for why someone shouldn’t argue the way they are – I definitely disagree, but I’m going to bracket this set of issues I think (even though it’s really central!) and hopefully put some stuff up on my blog when I’ve read a bit more of your work and a bit more of Brandom’s. Promises, promises, but I’m interested so hopefully it’ll happen.

        Now with regard to the distinction between practices and norms – you’re saying that practices can be fully described, but norms can’t be, because they are under-determined by practices, and open us to commitments the content of which we can’t fully know in advance, but which we will debate when the time comes. Do I have that more or less right? If that’s in something like the right ballpark re: your position, isn’t the issue here that you’re implicitly stopping the analysis of practices at the present, but including the possibility of future decisions, debates, and actions within the definition of norms? I.e. the force of this distinction would go away if you applied the same frame of reference to both practices and norms? (The same issue would presumably apply w/r/t unknowns that are unknown for reasons other than their futurity.)

        Another way of putting that (for the hell of it): yes, practices under-determine norms, but practices also under-determine practices. One can’t predict human behaviour with 100% accuracy. If one imagines (impossibly) that one could predict human behaviour with 100% accuracy (the old bug-bear of deteminism, I guess), this also (famously) seems to cause parallel problems for the special characteristics of norms. Unless, of course, one makes norms supernatural – which I take it you’re not aiming to do. So I’m unconvinced that under-determination picks out anything particularly useful about norms as opposed to practices. I may, however, be misunderstanding your position.

        Thanks for the really interesting replies here…


        Comment by duncan — 10 July 2010 @ 4:23 am

      • Ok, scratch that last comment, reading your site I see I’m misinterpreting again. Sorry about that, I keep getting ahead of myself. You’ve got a rather complicated system here, Pete! It’s very cool.


        Comment by duncan — 10 July 2010 @ 10:49 am

      • Pete – the gist of the opposition that makes me uncomfortable, and which I was trying inadequately to express above, is in this passage from your Dissecting Norms post:

        The world is fully determinate, and it will always help us choose between theories as long as we can work out the right question. Interpretation on the other hand does not have the kind of plenitude of evidence which is bequeathed to description. For instance, in interpreting the intentions of the writers of the US Constitution, we will always be confronted at points where we have to make a best guess, by marshalling an interpretational narrative gleaned from the historical facts available.

        I feel this is a false opposition: there are plenty of hard-science endeavours where the slightest of evidence must be marshalled, and debatable interpretation must be built upon debatable interpretation to reach the most hesitant of hypotheses; further, the assumption that the world is fully determinate seems a strong and empirically unwarranted one.

        I am now going to shush for a little while. Sorry to bombard your site, ktismatics.


        Comment by duncan — 10 July 2010 @ 12:24 pm

      • Hey, that’s what the discussion box is for, Duncan. I’ve been enjoying the ongoing conversations, and I suspect others have as well.


        Comment by ktismatics — 10 July 2010 @ 12:38 pm

      • Hi Duncan,

        I’m enjoying the discussion too, even if I also find the nested structure of the comments here somewhat confusing. I just about understand your problems with that passage, but I think there are a few clarifications and counter-points to be had.

        1. Is the claim that the world is fully determinate an empirical one? Is it susceptible to empirical testing, or isn’t it rather a presupposition of all such empirical testing? I suspect that you’d want to field the example of QM against this, and say that QM shows that there are some things that are simply indeterminate, such as where exactly an electron is to be found in any given case. I’m not an expert on the interpretation on quantum mechanics, but I don’t think this is an example of something being objectively indeterminate, i.e., of the statement ‘the electron is located here’ being neither true nor false. It’s rather one of those cases where we have to modify our concept of what it is for an electron to be *located* anywhere at all. QM presents an analogous example: are electrons particles or waves? The evidence that moved us to take them to be both was not thereby evidence to think that there is something like a true contradication, but rather evidence to think that the predicates ‘particle’ and ‘wave’ are not incompatible.

        2. The claim was not meant to say that getting answers to scientific questions was easy, as if all empirical theories can be assessed by simple observations. Science involves a lot of work inferring results from what is always a limited data set. The point is that science never reacher a point at which it says: ‘there’s just no answer here’. It might be unable to work out an answer for now, but it will always strive to find more data and rework its questions. In interpretative cases, there is always the possibility that the evidence you have to work with is all you’ll ever get, and its also possible to have cases where you simply accept that there is no answer to a perfectly good question. For instance, ‘does Thor have any birthmarks?’. You might be able to marshall an interpretation of Norse myth which determines a whole bunch of facts about Thor, but there will always be questions about him where the only response is to either accept that the answer is indeterminate, or to stipulate an answer. Laying this out properly though requires providing a more detailed description of the difference between description (empirical science) and interpretation (hermeneutics).


        Comment by deontologistics — 11 July 2010 @ 2:31 am

      • Hey Pete – so on the determinate thing, your position is that taking the world to be fully determinate is a transcendental condition of empirical investigation? Again, I’m pretty sceptical about this, but I’m mostly just trying to get to grips with your framework. Why do you regard this as necessary?

        There’s a lot I’d like to say in response to your second point also, but I feel that Thor might be a bad example to hang it off of – not least because I know zip about Norse mythology or the historical cultures that produced it. Which of your writings should I read for a more developed account of your view of the difference between description and interpretation?

        I’m thinking of taking a breather anyhow, and perhaps then posting something a bit more careful and informed on my blog. So again, no need to answer these questions soon.

        And this is a really great conversation – thanks!


        Comment by duncan — 11 July 2010 @ 5:12 am

      • I’m butting into the conversation, but thinking about this fully-determinate issue from the side of praxis… Empirical sciences like social psychology and ecology deal with views of the world characterized by highly complex interactions among multiple entities and forces. Hypotheses and data analyses typically include probabilistic models; e.g., how much of the variation in measured output variables can be attributed to variations in the input variables? These inferential statistics are usually scaled from 0 (randomness) to ±1, which is perfect predictability of outputs from inputs, which is also complete determinism. In these fields of research, though, perfect predictability, while normative, is a perfection that’s never actually encountered in real data sets and is only fairly distantly approached; e.g., 30-50% of the variation is a strong result. In practice, researchers attempt to close the randomness gap, to get as close to 100% as possible, even though they know that they’ll never actually get very close. So they work in small increments: a few more fractions of randomness accounted for in the mathematical model, a bit more determinism embedded in the statistical models of the real.

        Never in practice does a “soft” scientist assume that some aspect of the outcome exceeds or evades predictability from inputs, although they’ll acknowledge that practically speaking unexplained randomness will always persist in even their strongest models. Because they’re already working with probabilistic theories they’re prepared to live in relative harmony with a partly random world. Whether that randomness is a limit of knowledge or an irreducible aspect of the world is left an open question. The working assumption in any area of study, however, is that researchers are working asymptotically toward a perfectly predictive, fully deterministic model. The trade-off is between predictive power and explanatory elegance. It’s possible to approach perfect mathematico-statistical modeling of an observed dataset. However, strong probabilistic models typically include nearly as many variables as there are data points, so from the standpoint of theory they’re pretty useless.


        Comment by ktismatics — 11 July 2010 @ 9:08 am

      • Because they’re already working with probabilistic theories they’re prepared to live in relative harmony with a partly random world. Whether that randomness is a limit of knowledge or an irreducible aspect of the world is left an open question.

        I think this is correct and really important.


        Comment by duncan — 11 July 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    • Hi Duncan,

      I should note that I’m in the process of writing a post addressing the kinds of concerns you express here, but in the mean time, I need to clarify that I don’t claim Marx has a priori norms at the basis of his critical project. Rather, my claim is that Marx does not exclude out of hand transcendental norms of the sort Pete endorses – a claim you disagree with, but I think you’re wrong – and that a consistent rational reconstruction of Marx’s critique should endorse something like ‘fundamental norms of rationality’. You’re right that this is close to Habermas, but then, I think Habermas is closer to Marx than most think (even himself).

      The question of how to interpret footnote 4 is a question of how to relate the historicity of socially valid concepts to that of material reality, and I think reducing the former to the latter is neither Marx’s intention, nor a good move in general. I’ve given some ideas on how to relate these two sorts of historicity in that post, and while they are still underdeveloped and problematic, they should at least illuminate why I don’t think its wise to understand the historicity of concepts to be of the same kind as that of natural entities. I think there must be some distinction drawn between the historicity proper to social validity and that of objective validity if we are to respect the critique of fetishism, which as I understand it is primarily a matter of conflating the two. Again, I’ll try to make a more convincing and detailed argument for all this in the near future.


      Comment by Reid — 10 July 2010 @ 11:13 am

      • I should also note that, if we accept Pete’s argument (which I do), then Marx must be implicitly endorsing fundamental norms of rationality insofar as he is engaged in rational argumentation at all, let alone anything ‘scientific’.


        Comment by Reid — 10 July 2010 @ 11:35 am

      • Thanks Reid – as you say we disagree on this. On footnote 4, my suggestion isn’t that Marx is reducing the historicity of socially valid concepts to that of materiality, but that Marx is interested in the historicity of our concepts of materiality – that the concept of an abstract demystified materiality to which concepts and norms could in principle be reduced (the ‘abstract materialism’ of reductionist scientism) is itself a historically distinctive product of specific and contingent social practices, and needs to be understood as such.

        This connects, as you say, to the interpretation of the fetishism passage, but that’s a more complicated interpretive debate, and probably not one to hash out here. In a nutshell, my reading’s Pepperellian – but I guess that’s no surprise :-P. I look forward to further Marx posts, anyway, and perhaps we can discuss it more then…


        Comment by duncan — 10 July 2010 @ 12:07 pm

      • Sorry, missed your last two comments.

        I should also note that, if we accept Pete’s argument (which I do), then Marx must be implicitly endorsing fundamental norms of rationality insofar as he is engaged in rational argumentation at all, let alone anything ‘scientific’

        Well, but if Pete’s right that’s true of everyone, so it can’t help much with Marx exegesis. :-) That said, I have a strong hunches that Pete is wrong. I’m not having much luck cashing this hunch out, as yet, admittedly.


        Comment by duncan — 10 July 2010 @ 12:17 pm

      • You’re right on the last point, but I don’t think it’s trivial. If Marx implicitly prescribes to such norms, then he couldn’t consistently oppose their possibility. I really don’t think he is so opposed. What he would be opposed to, as far as I understand it, would be ascribing objective validity to such norms, and thus ascribing them some authority apart from their social necessity.

        While these norms are historically contingent in a certain sense, as Pete has said above, they are nonetheless necessary in any historically situated society that engages in something like rational activity. I think if Marx is to defend both an emancipatory political program that denies the primacy of material interests in favor of principled equality, and a scientific analysis of the empirical world, the historical contingency of the concepts involved in both must be primarily a matter of the distortion of rational activity by the various forms of material constraint that accompany its material conditions of possibility.

        I take a broadly Pepperellian approach to reading Capital as well, especially on the matter that Marx need not resort to any socially-transcendent basis for his critical position. Yet the fundamental norms of rationality are not socially-transcendent, they are thoroughly immanent to the social activity within which they are applicable. They do not exist apart from being conventions we employ in practices of rational discourse, even if they are necessary conventions operative in all rational discourse insofar as it is rational.

        I’d go so far as to say that the standpoint of critique requires such fundamental norms, and indeed that critique is nothing but bringing into relief the manner in which rationality is illegitimately constrained and distorted by the material conditions in which it happens to be instantiated. I’m not sure to what extent this breaks with Pepperell, but the degree to which I’d be critical of her is a matter of the compatibility of this claim with her overarching project. I need to give her work a more detailed reading, but I’m unsure on what basis one could motivate the transformation of a given mode of production without appeal to the liberation of rationality from irrational constraints that does not thereby resort to material interests.

        As for the historicity of our concept of materiality, I am of the same mind as you here. Any given schema of concepts, be they empirical or metaphysical, must remain open to the possibility of future revision and obsolescence. I nonetheless don’t think the footnote should be construed as claiming that the irreducibility of social to objective validity is itself historically contingent, but that the apparent ahistoricity of ‘abstract materialism’ is a consequence of its conflation of the social validity of scientific discourse itself with the objective validity of the particular content of its claims. Part of the social validity of science is that it is always liable to be overturned by future investigation. Neglecting this fact would involve taking the authority of the object over our claims about it to be free from mediation by social processes that treat the object as authoritative in this way, and thus free from the responsibility of one’s claims to other investigators, including the ever-present possibility of future investigators. In short, I think you have the order of explanation reversed – apparent ahistoricity is a result of conflation of social and objective validity, rather than disrespect of the latter distinction being a consequence of claims allegedly exempt from historical liability.


        Comment by Reid — 11 July 2010 @ 8:44 am

      • “I’d go so far as to say that the standpoint of critique requires such fundamental norms, and indeed that critique is nothing but bringing into relief the manner in which rationality is illegitimately constrained and distorted by the material conditions in which it happens to be instantiated.”

        This is good, Reid, and illustrates the robustness both of Pete’s normativity and your treatment of fetish value. The truths of scientific theories/findings are confounded by the social and psychological conditions in which they were produced. Latour as I understand him would celebrate this confounding, such that science is always a composite creation of objective reality with subjective and cultural factors. In a sense this approach valorizes or fetishizes the conflation of material reality and social construction. A normatively guided practice of empirical science is always trying to pull the composite into its components, trying to isolate the real object from the biases by which it is perceived and embedded in meaning. Ideal objectivity can probably never be achieved, but it can be approached incrementally and iteratively via critique. It’s how empirical science operates: pose an existing hypothesis, critique it theoretically, evaluate your critique’s validity by attempting to expose gaps and biases and so on in the hypothesis’ ability to account for real data, revise or replace the original hypothesis with a more accurate and less biased one, iterate.


        Comment by ktismatics — 11 July 2010 @ 9:45 am

      • Apologies for just ducking in where I’m being mentioned – I have a killer schedule at the moment, so my default for blog discussions is, unfortunately, “look but don’t touch” at the moment… But just a brief response to Reid’s latest comment.

        On this:

        I’d go so far as to say that the standpoint of critique requires such fundamental norms,

        I suspect Marx’s response to this position lies in a different footnote than the one that’s been thematised thus far in this discussion – a footnote early in chapter 2, hanging off a section of Capital where, once you work your way past Marx’s maddening tendencies to speak immanently to the positions he’s intending to explode, you realise that the target of this section is forms of social contract theory that are attempting to get at precisely this sort of underlying concept of “rationality” – forms of theory that are extremely similar to those Habermas is articulating today. In the main text, it can sound very much as though Marx is endorsing a kind of social contract theory (it can also sound, a couple paragraphs later, as if he’s endorsing a simplistic form of materialist reductionism) – I’ve argued elsewhere that Marx is doing neither, and that most of the positions articulated directly in the main text of Capital, especially in its early chapters, are positions being held up to ridicule, rather than endorsed. Leaving aside the exegesis, the footnote reveals explicitly how Marx understands the strategic purpose of the main text. Aimed at Proudhon, it says,

        Proudhon begins by taking his ideal of Justice, of “justice éternelle,” from the juridical relations that correspond to the production of commodities: thereby, it may be noted, he proves, to the consolation of all good citizens, that the production of commodities is a form of production as everlasting as justice. Then he turns round and seeks to reform the actual production of commodities, and the actual legal system corresponding thereto, in accordance with this ideal. What opinion should we have of a chemist, who, instead of studying the actual laws of the molecular changes in the composition and decomposition of matter, and on that foundation solving definite problems, claimed to regulate the composition and decomposition of matter by means of the “eternal ideas,” of “naturalité” and “affinité”? Do we really know any more about “usury,” when we say it contradicts “justice éternelle,” équité éternelle “mutualité éternelle,” and other vérités éternelles than the fathers of the church did when they said it was incompatible with “grâce éternelle,” “foi éternelle,” and “la volonté éternelle de Dieu”?

        Marx asks, in other words, how we are claiming to have advanced our understanding when, instead of saying, “this is right”, we say “this is naturally right” or “this is intrinsically and necessarily right”. He thinks this is an essentially mystical – and mystifying – move. It’s not so much that he disagrees with it – it’s that he thinks it adds nothing to the basic normative assertion that we think something is wrong, and want people to stop doing the wrong things, to add the coda that this wrongness violates the intrinsic implicit character of rationality. Why is it more wrong for something to contradict some implicit nature of Being (or Reason, or Language – or pick your other purportedly firm ontological foundation)?

        Capital offers an extended critique of approaches that derive their norms from intrinsic implicit features of experience. He has no problem with appealing to implicit characteristics per se – he has a problem with the notion that these implicit characteristics are less ephemeral, less the products of history and contingent practice, than more directly perceptible elements of our experience, which we seem intuitively more likely to regard as contingent and as products of historically varying practices. Capital is obsessed with showing (1) how various sorts of tacit “essences” both really are tacit essences (so Marx will criticise naive forms of empiricism for denying the existence of essences), while also insisting that (2) these essences are also contingent products of quite recent historical practice. It is because political economy does not do this that Marx mocks it for not knowing “where to have” its categories. Because political economy does not engage in a more pragmatist analysis of how its “essences” (of material reproduction, of reason, of selfhood, etc.) are enacted, these essences end up being accorded what Marx regards as an extremely weird ontological status: they are simultaneously asserted as empirical in the sense that they are meant to be “realising” themselves in history, while they are also asserted as ideal in the sense that you aren’t allowed to disavow them by showing how everyday empirical experience contradicts them. They aren’t taken to be manifest in regularities of actual behaviour, but instead asserted to be logically implicit in how specific practices ought to unfold.

        Marx thinks this is comical – a sure sign that the political economists don’t have the first clue about the practical origins of the ideals and concepts to which they nevertheless regularly appeal. This is the point of the “Dame Quickly” joke from the first chapter of Capital – Marx compares the political economists’ grasp of their categories to Dame Quickly’s comment that any man would know where to have her: he’s impugning the analytical virility of the political economists by accusing them of not knowing how to bed down their categories. Implicitly, Marx doesn’t think he suffers from this same problem… ;-P

        He then proceeds basically – and the argument here is very complex – to show how various ideals that are just read off as intrinsic, but latent, properties of, e.g., reason, material production, human nature, etc., can instead be shown to be actively generated in specific forms of practice. This analysis has the virtue that the forms of practice Marx analyses actually lines up, historically, with the emergence of the norms he’s trying to explain. It’s fine to run around through history then asking about various precursors to what we currently do, but it’s not necessary to see what we happen to have now as any sort of necessary telos, or even logical culmination, of what we before. We see certain things now that other times didn’t see, not because we’ve finally stripped away the veil and see more clearly what the intrinsic essence of our practices always already was, but because we happen to engage in different practices, and so we have qualitative different insights. We can apply these insights to other times, but articulating them as though they are some sort of culmination of the tacit logic of previous periods of history is – from Marx’s point of view – acting like Proudhon in the quote above: it adds nothing (other than a good dose of hubris and presentist exceptionalism) to the basic claim that we now have a practical basis for making the case that certain norms ought to be compelling in our own present time. (As an aside, I regard Marx’s position in this specific respect to be much more compatible with a Brandomian notion of retelling the past from the standpoint of our current history – while retaining full knowledge that this story is from our point of view – than it is with Habermas’ attempt to ground a much stronger historical/logical reconstruction that can anchor claims to the ontological adequacy of contemporary norms.)

        Basically, I think Marx would say: critique requires norms. And he would also say: calling those norms “fundamental” adds nothing to that statement. I suspect he would also think that the sheer energy poured into finding a solid ontological foundation (even an historically emergent solid ontological foundation) is misplaced, and predicated on a category error: his exasperation at Proudhon is driven, affectively, by the question, what good does it do, when these norms are violated, to hear that they are “eternal”, intrinsically logically implicit, etc.? I suspect Marx thinks there’s a danger of a sort of denial formation – where real defeats, driven by hard power relations, are compensated for with the ever-stronger assertion of the ideal invincibility of the eternally-violated norm. He wants that frustration, that despair, that anger over injustice channeled in other ways – like an analysis of the sorts of practices that can help these ideals become more experientially persuasive, and therefore more likely to be translated into everyday practice.

        There’s more to say, and I’ve not said this part particularly well – this will probably create more confusion than anything else :-) But for what it’s worth… (And apologies to ktismatics for dropping in so selectively, and on a tangent…)


        Comment by N. Pepperell — 11 July 2010 @ 7:19 pm

      • Hi Reid, Hi NP (I also happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here!). I wrote the below before I saw NP’s comment, so it doesn’t address many of those issues, and is rather less sophisticated than perhaps it should be. For what it’s worth…

        an emancipatory political program that denies the primacy of material interests

        I realise that material interests aren’t the only thing that interests Marx – far from it – but in terms of political goals I think it’s often understated – perhaps especially, and understandably, in discursive spaces that are interested in Marx as a theorist – just how central the crudest of material interests are to what Marx wants. At core, for Marx, we have a socio-economic system that produces unbelievably widespread and crushing poverty alongside the productive capacity to feed and clothe and house everybody alive, splendidly. This contrast is intolerable to anyone with any humanity and political sense. It is intolerable to Marx. For this reason, the satisfaction of material interests is just front and center w/r/t what Marx wants. Now, of course, Marx wants other things besides the elimination of poverty – he also wants the elimination of labour – the self-abolition of the working class. And for reasons connected to his analysis of capitalism, he thinks the latter is necessary for the achievement of the former. Marx is interested in enabling the free development of the human individual. But material interests must be core to this, too, because otherwise precious little else is achievable. In a sense, I agree, this is denying the primacy of material interests: Marx wants to achieve a society where individual and collective fulfillment is possible, because in this society the most basic material interests (how not to have one’s children starve tomorrow; how not to be forced to work 14 hours a day with nothing to show for it but survival) will not be the primary concern of the bulk of humanity for the first time in history. So in that sense Marx denies the primacy of material interests. But I think a lot of interpreters get Marx more than a little back to front when the question of material interests is downplayed in favour of more abstract discussions of mutual recognition, etc. Not that I don’t like such discussions – obviously I’m all for them, enjoy them a lot, and am participating in one right this very second – but I think they have limited purchase on Marx’s work. One of the reasons that Marx is so silent on the nature of the future egalitarian society he desires – one of the reasons he won’t write recipes for the cookshops of the future – is that he just doesn’t know what norms will govern this society, or what its inhabitants will want from their lives. That’s because it’s all contingent. Only by making such a society, if this is possible, will we also make the people who inhabit it and whose longings and responsibilities constitute its substance. So to ‘reverse engineer’ the process, such that the rationally-deducible outline of an egalitarian community of mutual recognition is first sketched; the transcendental norms governing its constitution are elaborated; and then, eventually, we turn our attention to how to stop poverty and exploitation – this approach does not resonate for me with Marx’s work. Again, this isn’t to criticise philosophy as such, which I like a lot, and engage in when I can; it’s about the relevance of this kind of analysis to politics in the first place, and Marx interpretation in the second.

        critique is nothing but bringing into relief the manner in which rationality is illegitimately constrained and distorted by the material conditions in which it happens to be instantiated.

        No. Critique doesn’t just come from finding rationality constrained. It also comes from saying “hey, here’s a way of managing the apparatus of the state that wouldn’t kill so many people”; or “hey, here’s a way of organising the workplace so we don’t have such shitty lives”, or “you know what, if we change our attitudes towards homosexuality, homosexuals won’t be assaulted so often – let’s do that” – and then trying to mobilise effective political forces behind these ideas. One can, if one chooses, define rationality in such a way that every good thing aligns with it and every bad thing opposes it – then critique will always be about constraints on rationality. But rationality as usually understood has precious little to do with huge swathes of political discourse and action one way or the other. People are monsters to each other: they kill each other for profit or for pleasure, indirectly or face to face – it is not irrational to do these things, it is simply abhorrent. It can be contested as abhorrent, without rationality or its illegitimate constraint becoming involved at all.

        I’m unsure on what basis one could motivate the transformation of a given mode of production without appeal to the liberation of rationality from irrational constraints that does not thereby resort to material interests.

        I’ve already said this above, and I don’t want to over-stress it – but I find difficult to understand this denigration of material interests as legitimate political motive. As I said above – we’re talking about people having enough food, enough water, enough money, enough health provision, to live. To aim to achieve these things is not to “resort” to anything; it is the main deal.


        Comment by duncan — 11 July 2010 @ 8:25 pm

      • Hi NP. Since we’ve got two self-professed Pepperelians on the thread it’s “ideal” to get your interpretation of the controversy at hand.

        So for Marx, critique attempts to move from the present situation to an incrementally better one, without giving consideration for an ideal or utopian solution — I’ve understood this to be the usual interpretation. But I think that’s the kind of case that Brandom would interpret as implicit normativity: “something better” implies a scale of goodness, be it defined as rationality or justice or objectivity, or I suppose also personal gain or power or fame. The implicit judgment of “B is better than A” imposes an obligation to act toward achieving the incremental improvement that B represents. So in an example from one of Pete’s post, “I’d like some milk, so I should go to the store and buy some” bespeaks an implicit norm, even though the obligation imposed by that norm applies only to the satisfying of one’s own desires. There’s no implication of perfect satisfaction or thirst-quenching to be achieved by acting in accord with the norm: it’s just a local improvement, an incremental move in the right direction on this particular scale of goodness.

        I’m not sure (not having read much Brandom) whether normativity implies judging the present situation or the incremental improvement against some perfect ideal of goodness. If it’s only relative movement in a desired direction that establishes normativity for Brandom, then it might encompass Marx’s position. Whether this way of deriving implicit norms is valid, and whether it adds anything useful to understanding what motivates people to do the right thing, are different matters. And maybe I’ve got Brandom wrong too, which would position this whole comment very low on the worthwhileness scale.


        Comment by ktismatics — 11 July 2010 @ 10:13 pm

      • Hi Nicole,

        Thanks for dropping by. I’m not an expert on Marx, and so I won’t venture into anything like textual exegesis. I will however say something about how my own position is meant to avoid the kind of critique your ascribing to Marx, and then suggest something about how Reid is trying to find elements of this position implicit within Marx’s critique itself.

        The major thing I’d want to emphasise is that there’s no sense in which the appeal to fundamental norms is an appeal to anything like an ontological foundation. These norms aren’t meant to explain anything. They’re not meant to be used to analyse the real composition of social structures (at least not in anything but a heuristic fashion). For instance, I think that the economic approaches based upon rational choice theory are doubly misguided, insofar as they both propound an erroneous account of the normative structure of rationality (as Brandom has shown), but moreover because they think they can use such an a priori account to derive empirical consequences. If what we’re interested in is describing, explaining, and ultimately predicting human behaviour, then we’ve got to be very clear to avoid using any kind of normative notions, insofar as these obscure anything like systematic deviances from those norms (e.g., the ignorance of systematic ‘irrationality’ encouraged by the rational choice theoretic perspective). Transcendental norms aren’t meant to explain anything real, but rather to legislate for the process through which we describe and explain the real (among other things).

        Now, I don’t know the extent to which Habermas’ approach violates this principle. I’ve been needing to sit down with Habermas for a while, but I simply can’t devote any time to it right now. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to tease out some more details from the contrast you drew between him and Brandom at the end there. The rough claim is that whereas Habermas is more focused upon ahistorical norms, Brandom adopts a more historically inflected Hegelian approach. This involves us retrospectively reconstructing the historical tradition in such a way as to justify norms that we can project into the future, while nonetheless recognising that we ourselves will become part of future reconstructions. I am very inclined towards this Brandomian approach, although I need to do some more work on it. The important thing to recognise though is that Brandom does not understand all norms in this way. The rational process of through which we progressively determine and revise our operative norms is itself norm governed, and these norms cannot themselves be subject to the same process of revision (even if there is perhaps some sense in which they can be extended or supplemented). Brandom hasn’t really discussed the fundamental status of such norms in too much detail, although there is an interesting piece on it in the collection of essays and responses by Brandom from Munster.

        The crucial question is whether ethical and political norms are transcendental (and thus not instituted) or historical (and instituted), or to what extent they fall on one side or the other. I think the suggested opposition between Habermas and Brandom is that Habermas tends towards the transcendental rather than the historical here (or that perhaps he is more Kantian than Hegelian). I think that there’s a legitimate debate to be had here. I myself think that we’re always going to be in a position of having to institute and revise ethical and political norms on the basis of rational reconstructions of the traditions we find ourselves in, but that nonetheless we can find certain positive transcendental principles which constrain this process (not in terms of causal constraint, but in terms of rational constraint). I’ve written more about this here: http://deontologistics.wordpress.com/2009/10/29/politics-and-ontology/ though my terminology has shifted a bit since then. Crucially, I suspect that these transcendental principles are fairly minimal, and this is where I break with more transcendent approaches to ideals of ‘Justice’ and the like. Whether there are such principles, and their extent, is really what is at stake here.

        Having said this then, I think Reid is (among other things) trying to perhaps locate some such minimal transcendental principles at the basis of Marx’s own normative commitments. However, this isn’t the same as trying to reduce all of Marx’s normative commitments to transcendental norms. I think what he’s trying to do is to say that Marx’s egalitarian prescriptions are not simply the recognition of historically emergent trends, but actually based in some ideal of collective rational self-determination. Nothing about this tells you how a concrete mode of collective rational self-determination would be organised, let alone brought about. This is a matter for the more concrete analyses of the way human social structures actually function, and the debates surrounding precisely which norms we should institute in order to rearrange them in accordance with this ideal. So, transcendental norms don’t give us direct answers regarding either how society is *actually* constructed nor how it *should* be constructed, nor how we *can* get from one to the other, but they do regulate the rational processes through which we come to positions on all of them.

        I understand the worry that all this talk about norms can distract us from the concrete issues of how to understand and then change society, but this is only the case if the former *supplants* the latter, rather than *supplementing* it. The goal of my approach is to properly achieve the latter.


        Comment by deontologistics — 12 July 2010 @ 3:50 am

      • Hi Nicole,

        I’m going to respond to you before reading the comments that follow you because I want to keep my points fresh in my mind, so I apologize if I restate anything anyone else says. I basically agree with everything you say here, with a few caveats. First, the ‘fundemantalness’ of the norms of rationality is not an ontological status, as it would be for Habermas (at least as you’ve presented him here) or for Proudhon’s eternal ideas. These norms do not have any objective existence apart from the historically contingent practices that instantiate them, and hence seen in such terms they are thoroughly historical. Their ‘ahistoricity’ consists only in the sense that we must regard them as valid regardless of contingent practical circumstances if we are to make sense of a ‘normative force’ that outstrips the particular context in which a claim is made, such as the motivations of whomever makes it. I advanced a rather experimental argument in my recent post for why this sort of ‘ahistorical’ status is still subject to historicity in another sense, an argument that needs to be improved but which I think has enough merit to still advocate.

        I don’t want to get into exegetical issues over Chapter 2 at the moment, especially not with a reader of Marx as accomplished as yourself. I do nonetheless think it is mistaken to say the attribution of ‘fundamentalness’ or ‘necessity’ to the norms of rationality adds nothing to them. It is important to note that it does not intend to add anything of the order of an ontological status, however. These norms are only pseudo-entities, that exist exclusively for-us, within the context of practices of rationality (this us must be understood to include all possible rational agents, however). The ahistorical necessity of these norms holds only for us, and in a sense is an attribute that can only be granted universally within a rational reconstruction of the type Brandom describes – this is the argument I begin making in my aforementioned post (although I’m eager to see what Pete thinks about this point).

        In any case, whatever Marx would say, I’m more interested in what he should say or needs to say to make his overall commitments – theoretical and political – consistent and workable, and I do think in that sense he should advocate the sort of fundamental norms described here.


        Comment by Reid — 12 July 2010 @ 10:05 am

      • Duncan, you say:

        “I think it’s often understated – perhaps especially, and understandably, in discursive spaces that are interested in Marx as a theorist – just how central the crudest of material interests are to what Marx wants.”

        I agree with you here. My point would be that what makes the proletariat so important for Marx is that they are the first class for whom material and rational interests coincide (if only to an extent), especially in that their material interest is incompatible with those of other classes, and a revolutionary change undertaken for their benefit would require the abandonment of material interests as the structuring principle of social order…I need to develop this point in greater detail, however.

        I also think Marxism is superior than even the most left-leaning liberalism precisely because of its insistence on equality not only in the formal sense of equal rights and responsibilities, but also in the material sense of the real conditions de facto necessary to exercise and enjoy such rights.

        “People are monsters to each other: they kill each other for profit or for pleasure, indirectly or face to face – it is not irrational to do these things, it is simply abhorrent.”

        The point is that it is abhorrent AND irrational. There is ultimately no good reason for such conduct. Of course, it takes more than criticism of the reasons for such actions to stop them, and indeed very often such actions aren’t accompanied by any attempt at justification. But I don’t think one can get very far with appeals to primitive senses of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for which no reasons can be offered without reducing ethics and politics to the head-butting of allegedly incontestable assertions. One must be able to say why something is right or wrong, one must be able to give good reasons for it, or else what counts as good is determined solely by the reason of the strongest. I think the appeal of fundamental norms of rationality lies in the sense in which we can deduce from the very minimal, but also very important, principles for ethics and politics according to which, for example, there is no good reason to refuse to treat another rational agent with the same dignity you would afford any other.

        ” I find difficult to understand this denigration of material interests as legitimate political motive.”

        It’s not about the denigration of material interests, but about refusing to make them the ultimate political principle, precisely because they are not alone enough to protect against a politics that advocates the satisfaction of the interests of one group to the exclusion or detriment of another. For this, one would need (for example) a sense in which the basic material needs of all people deserve to be satisfied as a matter of principle, and material interests of individuals alone will never take you that far. Such an approach will only get you some version of utilitarianism, which at best can advocate the satisfaction of the greatest number because it is in the interest of the greatest number, not because people in principle deserve such satisfaction (or other forms of dignity).


        Comment by Reid — 12 July 2010 @ 10:27 am

      • Hey Reid. I’m not sure how productive a debate on this will be – our views are simply incompatible! no rational movement towards consensus is possible! :-P – but on this:

        I don’t think one can get very far with appeals to primitive senses of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for which no reasons can be offered without reducing ethics and politics to the head-butting of allegedly incontestable assertions.

        I may try to work through some of the themes that have been discussed on this thread on my blog over the coming months, which would give more depth and detail, but basically, in no particular order.

        1) Practically speaking, if someone thinks 1.7 billion people living in poverty isn’t “bad”, they can just piss off. I think Rorty has a line somewhere that too much philosophy spends too much time trying to convince sociopaths.

        2) But more philosophically – the “we” that is a given normative community to which we belong, need not encompass all humanity for that community’s norms to be legitimate.

        3) It’s also important to bear in mind that, even within a framework like Pete’s, which involves transcendental norms, norms need not be derived from transcendental norms to be legitimate. The reasons that are given within the non-transcendental space of reasons are still reasons. Even very abstract political goals can fall on the ‘retail’ side of the ‘wholesale’ / ‘retail’ distinction that Brandom uses, without this causing problems for the norms as norms.

        Don’t know if that’s clarificatory.


        Comment by duncan — 14 July 2010 @ 1:55 am

      • [NB: reading back, I meant to write “absolute poverty” for the 1.7 billion figure – the common-or-garden poverty figure would be much higher. Having googled it, however, I see that the World Bank’s currently estimating 1.4 billion in absolute or extreme poverty (= less than US$1.25 per day). So substitute that in, sorry.]


        Comment by duncan — 14 July 2010 @ 9:08 am

      • Thanks Duncan. We may not be able to come to agreement, but I’ll nonetheless keep trying. I’ll address your points in order.

        1) Practically speaking, if someone thinks 1.7 billion people living in poverty isn’t “bad”, they can just piss off. I think Rorty has a line somewhere that too much philosophy spends too much time trying to convince sociopaths.

        I absolutely agree, of course, but this doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t have reasons for thinking it is bad. Its also not quite that cut and dry. One could easily imagine a proponent of capitalism arguing that while these circumstances are bad, they are the “least possible evil” for any number of reasons: other economic systems would result in even greater poverty; the majority of those that are impoverished are nonetheless better off than they were before, or are now in a position to eventually become better off; etc. These may be faulty arguments, but that is all the more reason to hold those that make them rationally accountable.

        As for the point about sociopathy, I tend to have strong distaste for this sort of psychologization of politics. There are certainly sociopaths out there, but the sociopathy that predominates such that the atrocities you indicate appear relatively acceptable is a systemic problem, not a psychological one. Its not that there are a large number of sociopaths manipulating the trust of the rational community, but that the practical structures of rationality are configured such that relatively sociopathic attitudes are rendered acceptable and even normal.

        You may have meant it in a more metaphorical way, in which case I understand your complaint that we don’t need arguments against this configuration so much as coordinated efforts to change it. I wholeheartedly agree with you here, but think you are posing an unnecessary dichotomy. There is no reason to think we need to opt for either argument or practical engagement; we need both together. Argument is an important element of both winning people over to the cause and determining the most effective modes of organizing its efforts. Obviously, relying only on those to whom the necessity of change is already obvious is not getting us far enough fast enough. We need to aim to convince at least some ‘sociopaths’, or more fairly, some people whom have been unfortunately entrapped within a system of normalized sociopathy. In this regard, I believe that revolutionary organization must continue to go hand in hand with ideology critique.

        Finally, I don’t know if I made this clear in my previous comment, but characterizing rationality as intrinsically good is not my intention. The point is that we can only have a concept of “the good” at all by virtue of collective processes of rational deliberation, and that while the determination this concept’s content can never be taken as immune to future deliberation, there are nonetheless certain minimal elements of it that can be derived from the structures of rationality, insofar as no determination of the good can exist without them.

        2) But more philosophically – the “we” that is a given normative community to which we belong, need not encompass all humanity for that community’s norms to be legitimate.

        3) It’s also important to bear in mind that, even within a framework like Pete’s, which involves transcendental norms, norms need not be derived from transcendental norms to be legitimate. The reasons that are given within the non-transcendental space of reasons are still reasons. Even very abstract political goals can fall on the ‘retail’ side of the ‘wholesale’ / ‘retail’ distinction that Brandom uses, without this causing problems for the norms as norms.

        I’ll take these two together because I’m not quite clear what point you’re making in the first, and the second seems to explicate the same idea a bit more.

        I of course agree with what you say here, and never intended to suggest that all norms are transcendental or anything of the like. The negotiation of the historically contingent norms governing collective activity is precisely what politics is (or really, it is one half of politics, with the other half being the actual activity itself). The points I’m trying to make are as follows:

        1) there are fundamental norms governing rational activity as such, including deliberation over non-fundamental norms;

        2) in various social configurations, rational activity and the norms that govern it may be illegitimately constrained by material relations of force, privilege, wealth, etc that are not themselves rationally justifiable, or in more “advanced” cases, are illegitimately justified through the fetishistic ascription of objective necessity to contingent practico-social forms;

        3) it is possible to minimize these illegitimate constraints and to maximize the role of rational conduct in collective determination or politics; and

        4) we can derive from the fundamental structures of rational some very minimal principles for such a politics, including that rational activity should not be subject to any material constraint that is not itself rationally justified, and that all rational agents should have an equal say in the collective determination of social organization and ends (and that this equality should be not only formal, but material as well). These principles do not even come close to exhausting the space of political deliberation, and in fact only lay the groundwork for a genuinely egalitarian mode of such deliberation.

        I may not be convincing you of anything, but I hope that at least makes my positions more clear. I would certainly like to better understand where your views are incompatible with mine, but if you feel continuing the discussion at this point would be fruitless, I understand. Nonetheless, I’m grateful that you’ve challenged me to explicate and clarified my positions – this has been very productive for me.


        Comment by Reid — 14 July 2010 @ 9:08 am

      • Hi Reid – just a quick comment to say this isn’t fruitless to my mind, I’d like to keep talking it through too – I’m really busy with work today and maybe tomorrow but I’ll post a more detailed response soon. Thanks…


        Comment by duncan — 15 July 2010 @ 9:57 am

      • Right, sorry to stall the thread there – I think there are a few different issues in this and they may require more apparatus than can be laid out here to be worked through adequately, but as a contribution…

        My first and probably main point is the ‘wholesale’ / ‘retail’ one. I think there are a lot of theorists – I’d include Habermas in this – who think that unless the content of their broad political ideals can in some sense be derived from conditions of rationality as such, the political norms themselves are illegitimate. My most general point, w/r/t how these kinds of transcendental (or more-or-less transcendental) arguments work, is that this isn’t necessary in order for political ideals to be legitimate. I think that if this is acknowledged – which I think it ought to be if one has a framework something like Pete’s operating in the background – one has removed a lot of the motivation that many people (like say Habermans) seem to have for attempting to derive political ideals from transcendental conditions of rationality.

        Now, this is a separate point from the question of whether our political deals can in fact be derived from transcendental conditions of possibility of rationality, and I think it’s important to keep the two questions distinct. It’s possible to think that abstract political ideals motivating our politics logically need not be derived from transcendental conditions of possibility of rationality in order to be binding, while also thinking that, as it happens, the ideals in question (say, the ideal of a society of general mutually accorded dignity and respect) are derivable from transcendental conditions of possibility of rationality.

        Now I also disagree with this latter claim – but that’s a separate argument from the one above. My reasons for this disagreement are perhaps more involved than my reasons for the former, so I’m not sure how effectively I can lay out the case here.

        Pete’s apparatus, as I understand it – and I presume Brandom’s which he’s using, although I don’t know, having read very little Brandom – grounds normativity in a social-contract-theory understanding of obligation. Here’s Pete:

        we become subjects insofar as we bind ourselves to the fundamental norms of rationality. The reasons I make this claim is because of the insight into normativity that Brandom finds in Kant, namely, the thesis of autonomy. This is the claim that any authority is binding on us only insofar as we accept that authority.

        Now this claim – the claim that any authority is binding on us only insofar as we accept that authority – is a highly historically specific claim, in terms of what communities it seems compelling to. It would not have seemed at all intuitive – in fact it would have seemed extremely bizarre – to most people throughout much of history. This intuition starts to become compelling – and political movements that are based on it and that also promote it start gaining social traction – at a specific historical moment (Kant’s moment, and a while before – Rousseau is a canonical early theoretical articulator of this impulse, obviously). The social space in which this understanding of normativity suddenly becomes compelling is also a social space characterised (I suggest non-coincidentally) by the dramatic expansion of real-world contract-relations, specifically economic ones. That is to say: this understanding of normativity historically emerges at the same moment as the expansion of capitalism. At this historical moment, in newly-dominant capitalist society, social bonds that would formerly have been not contractual but rather (for instance) inherited, or negotiated-custom-based, or considered part of the natural order and hence at least theoretically incontestible [these are all pretty crude and probably unhelpful characterisations of pre-capitalist social relations, but my point is just to draw the appropriate contrast], suddenly become re-routed into contract-relations, via a bureaucratic and legal apparatus that is also developing for this purpose. (Habermas theorises this along Weberian lines as a rationalisation of society, and I think that’s apologistic; I don’t think contractual wage-labour relations and the state forms associated with them are any more intrinsically ‘rational’ than the manorial system, or hunting-gathering-raiding nomadic economic relations, etc.) With this huge socio-economic shift comes a shift in the theorisation of obligation. It suddenly seems intuitive to the philosophers of the time that an abstract social contract – the voluntary and autonomous relinquishing of natural autonomy in a formal agreement that creates an obligation and hence a limit on legitimate autonomy – is the paradigmatic case of normativity as such, and all forms of normativity should be understood in terms of this model.

        Part of what Marx is doing in the early chapters of Capital – on the Pepperellian read of the text and indeed theoretical apparatus that I’m channeling here (though this is a lot more simplistic than NP’s own work) – is elaborating the social practices that make social contract theory (these ideas of autonomy and obligation) socially compelling and theoretically intuitive. Importantly, for Marx, capitalist society inculcates this understanding of normativity, and a set of political ideals associated with it, but is incapable of realising those ideals in any general way, because these ideals are ‘contradicted’ by the consequences of other dimensions of capitalist social practice (exploitative dimensions, for instance). Two faulty forms of theorisation are therefore opened up by capitalist society’s inculcation of these political ideals. One theoretical error is to claim that capitalist society, because large sections of it are based on voluntary contract-relations, already realises these political ideals (or, more often, is a precondition to and force driving towards their realisation: this would be the kind of position held by more recent apologistic political-economists like Friedman or Hayek). The other theoretical error (which I think Habermas is an example of) is to believe that some aspect of human nature (e.g. communicative action) (rather than more contingent social practices) is intrinsically productive of these political ideals. This is a less apologistic error than the Hayekian one, but it is still theoretically problematic – partly just because it’s wrong, but partly also because it naturalises something (these ideals of freedom, autonomy, mutual recognition, and our understanding of their basis) which is better understood as far more socially contingent. This can have the effect of naturalising – and thereby implicitly protecting from critique – particular dimensions of capitalist social practice.

        So: Marx thinks we can leverage the ideals created by one dimension of capitalist society, in order to critique and transform other dimensions of capitalist society. Marx isn’t critical of the political ideals that can be made and deployed in this way. But he thinks it’s important not to naturalise the origins of these ideals (‘naturalise’, used in this quite broad sense, would include deriving them from transcendental arguments about the conditions of rational discourse – i.e. this is not a critique that applies specifically to ‘naturalism’, in its scientistic forms.) And the fact that these ideas about the structure of normativity can’t just be deduced by anyone who pays enough philosophical attention to transcendental conditions of possibility, is made visible by the fact that, historically, this understanding of normativity only emerges at a very specific time, and that a compelling historical account of the social causes of this emergence is available.

        I should emphasise again that I’m simply channeling (a less sophisticated version of) NP’s work here – and there’s much more that could be said. But this may be enough to make more clear why I find the attempt to ground political ideals of mutual recognition in a transcendental deduction of the conditions of rationality problematic. This is not to say that I’m critical of the ideals themselves.

        Ok – those are the main points on the first thing. W/r/t other remarks: on sociopathy – yes, it was pretty much metaphorical, I was being too telegraphic there, sorry. I wasn’t intending to psychologise political disagreement, although I realise my comment reads that way – my point was intended to be that there are limits to the kind of persuasion it’s rational to attempt. Sociopathy is only one extreme case here – my point was that the kinds of reasons one offers for one’s political (or whatever) judgements needn’t be the kinds of reasons that will persuade anyone at all (for there are no such reasons). It’s reasonable to offer reasons that can persuade only within a limited discursive space; this is not in and of itself a problem with the reasons. This could I think be developed much more extensively, but this is already a long comment. So enough for now…


        Comment by duncan — 17 July 2010 @ 5:51 am

      • Well, looks like I finally killed the thread. :-P Just to say that I’ve expanded some of my comments to Pete in a post on my own blog. The post could undoubtedly be clearer and more succinct, but so it goes. I also wanted to say thanks for enabling this conversation, ktismatics – I’ve found it really interesting, and it’s motivated me to engage with material I probably never would have read otherwise. So that’s a real result, for me at least… Hope you’re back blogging again before too long…


        Comment by duncan — 21 July 2010 @ 6:16 am

      • My pleasure, Duncan, and thanks so much for contributing to the conversation, which I too found valuable. It’s more likely that the thread ran out because it got displaced to Pete’s 3-part response to Levi, which also captured Reid’s attention. Now that that debate has reached its predictably frustrating impasse, hopefully Pete and Reid will find their way over to your new post, where mutually constructive give-and-take has a better chance of unfolding.


        Comment by ktismatics — 21 July 2010 @ 8:23 am

      • Thanks ktismatics.

        This is an aside, but something’s been bugging me about my last reply to Reid, and I wanted to expand a few points quickly. I said above that Marx isn’t critical of these social-contract normative theorisations and associated political ideals – he just thinks we need to understand their contingency, in order not to naturalise aspects of capitalist society. That isn’t quite right though – Marx is critical of these ideals, because he thinks they’re tethered to a specific dimension of capitalist practice in such a way that, functionally, they tend to channel a specific social subject-position, one principally associated with the petty-bourgeoisie. Marx connects these kinds of social contract ideals to the sphere of circulation, where owners of commodities meet and enter into contracts for the exchange of commodities – the kind of mutual recognition instantiated in contracts is in practical terms inseparable from commodity-ownership, under capitalism. Marx thinks that political programs that envisage the generalisation of this aspect of capitalism, so as to encompass those who do not own more than their own bodies (and sometimes not even that), often have radical intentions, but are politically unrealistic – they’re ‘utopian’, in Marx’s slightly technical sense of thinking that a specific slice of social reality can be generalised, without understanding the way in which that slice of social reality is dependent for its existence on other, less desirable, aspects of social reality. Marx thinks that a different kind of conception of equality is necessary in order for equality to be socially generalisable: not a social-contract conception of equality, but one generated by and appropriable from other aspects of present social experience.

        This is a Marxological point, and doesn’t I think have any immediate bearing on any of the issues we were discussing. And this comment is also way over-simplistic and leaves a lot unsaid. But I felt my comment above was assimilating Marx too closely to social contract theory – even though he does certainly use these kinds of theoretical resources.

        Enough from me!


        Comment by duncan — 22 July 2010 @ 1:53 am

      • Let me see if I’m catching on, Duncan… The social contract idea, in which individual subjects voluntarily subscribe to some mutually agreed-upon norm, is itself a capitalist notion predicated on individualism. And this is true regardless of whether the norm is protection of personal property or economic growth, rationality or objectivity, justice or equality. The norm turns into a utopian ideal, forever unattainable and consequently stultifying of communal action that won’t lead to perfection. Anyway, the norm typically serves to disguise behind a publicly attractive front: the more crass self-serving motives that drive the collusion of the ruling class.

        The implication is what — that the proletariat should form an alliance explicitly in order to pursue their own interests, individually and collectively, versus the ruling class, without regard to normative commitments to one another? Is it reasonable to call self-interest and class interest a norm? Does “norm” always imply an end or a goal, whereas pursuit of interests is a motivation or a drive?


        Comment by ktismatics — 22 July 2010 @ 10:26 am

      • that the proletariat should form an alliance explicitly in order to pursue their own interests, individually and collectively, versus the ruling class, without regard to normative commitments to one another?

        Oh no, not at all – I’m miscommunicating severely if I seem to be saying that. The issue to me is just whether social contract theory of the Kantian(/Brandomian?) kind really is an adequate account of normativity in general. I’m suggesting (with Marx) that it isn’t – that normativity is a broader phenomenon than is capturable by social contract analysis; that social contract analysis is channeling a more historically and cultural specific perspective on normativity than it intends to. The debate as I see it isn’t between normativity (represented by social contract theory), on the one hand, versus no normativity (represented by material interests), on the other. I think everyone in this conversation thinks that norms are involved in the constitution of any discursive or political space whatsoever. The question is just what this normativity is – how to understand it.

        I should add that the fact that a normative framework, or a theoretical apparatus, is produced or made intuitive by a given society (say capitalism) is not in itself any kind of critique of that framework, etc. This is the most basic point I’m trying to push, probably: that being produced in a socially contingent way is not in itself a problem for a normative framework. When I say ‘capitalism produces social contract theory’, this is not a critique of social contract theory – nor does it mean that social contract theory is only legitimate within or applicable to capitalist societies (social contract theory could in principle be transhistorically accurate, as an analytic framework, despite being contingently produced; and the normative commitments that social contract theory expresses could in principle be institutionalised in non-capitalist ways (though my subsidiary Marxological point is that Marx is sceptical about the political programs of his time that claim to be able to achieve this)). The critique of social contract theory is more specific: first and foremost, that social contract theory does not in fact capture various aspects of normativity, analytically.

        In other words, I’m trying to distinguish the contingent social origins of a theory (which present no problem at all for the theory, in my opinion) from the limited social applicability of a theory (which can present serious problems, if the theory is meant to be as generally socially applicable – as transhistorically correct – as is Kant’s and possibly Brandom’s.) These points are connected, of course – theorists’ unawareness of the social contingency of their own presuppositions is one reason why they so often produce inaccurate generalising theories. But they are fundamentally different points. (There’s also a separate point again, about whether normative commitments contingently produced by one society can be institutionalised (or realised) in another. The answer is that they can be, but it’s again easier to see how if we don’t mistakenly think that the normative commitments we’re trying to institutionalise are transhistorically deducible.)


        Comment by duncan — 22 July 2010 @ 6:34 pm

      • I’m reminded of Nick Srnicek’s and Reid’s exploratory thoughts on “prefigurative praxis,” wherein the current structures and activities already enact the norms and goals to be achieved. I think science does this quite effectively. Scientists in training don’t sign on to an objectivist manifesto or commit themselves to actualizing the idealized vision of perfect knowledge of the world. Rather, you acquire some understanding of the “hot” areas of investigation and some basic facility with the investigative tools, then you get to work. The tools have been crafted to separate wheat from chaff, ore from dross, etc., and they’re continually being refined to do a better job. Similarly, the state of knowledge in the field is always partial, always commingled with error and ignorance and bias, but always being subjected to incremental purification. And the hot topics are continually being pushed into previously unexplored territories, so that the scope of work expands and deepens. So the praxis of science prefigures its goals, always taking the situation as it is and pushing it incrementally along rather than trying to build a fantasy utopian Big Science.

        Hardt & Negri, following Deleuze & Guattari, seem to promote this sort of prefigurative praxis, with the multitudinous lines of flight undermining Empire. But is there a shared commitment to a norm, and is there a praxis that embodies this norm? I get the sense that they regard desire and drive to be enough, that freeing up the flows will spontaneously result in the desired social systems, perhaps eventually reaching a tipping point when the old order can be dispensed with. But I’m not persuaded that desire is the engine for producing justice, just as I don’t think that desire produces objective knowledge of the world. Certainly there has to be some sort of libidinal investment in pursuing the norms, but desire decoupled from norms seems like the ideology of contemporary neoliberalism.

        The alternative version of leftist prefigurative praxis seems to require establishing a kind of parallel universe, disengaging from existing structures and constructing new ones. Maybe these parallel structures and praxes would eventually accumulate enough critical mass to supplant the status quo. To me the question is whether some cadre of people committed to norms of justice and equality can operate a prefigurative praxis within the existing structures. I don’t think they’ll be able to transform the status quo progressively, but they might be able to create some pockets of justice and some undermining interventions, however limited in scope and duration. But this might be doomed to frustration, the cadre’s efforts inevitably being coopted by the larger forces within which they’re trying to operate.

        Anyhow, a prefigurative praxis that embodies the norms in a daily work would seem to be a way of linking present to future, desire to agency to standards.


        Comment by ktismatics — 23 July 2010 @ 10:40 am

      • I don’t think they’ll be able to transform the status quo progressively, but they might be able to create some pockets of justice and some undermining interventions, however limited in scope and duration. But this might be doomed to frustration, the cadre’s efforts inevitably being coopted by the larger forces within which they’re trying to operate.

        Yes – the big problem w/r/t the abolition of capitalism – rather than the social-democratic ideal of creating more humane and progressive political spaces within capitalist dynamics – is that those dynamics have a tendency to destroy activities that push too much against the general movement of the system. I guess a genuine large-scale transformation is going to have to come from both directions: the local creation of social and political spaces capable of better inculcating and embodying the kind of political practices that would not just aid in the creation of but also be part of the reality of an alternative society; and at the same time an abolition of the very general dynamics that tend to squash such endeavours before they can have much larger scale impact. The latter is also really important, I think, and probably comes down to international political and economic structures. I wish there were more theoretical discussion in radical spaces of what alternative international structures would enable this kind of shift. But of course I also don’t have anything very useful to contribute on this issue myself, at present.


        Comment by duncan — 25 July 2010 @ 3:26 am

  16. Duncan,

    I’m always glad to see anyone pick up some Brandom. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s an astoundingly comprehensive and powerful thinker. For you, and anyone else who is interested, here’s a quick run down of what to read:-

    If you want a quick primer on the stuff to do with teleosemantics, representation and normativity, he wrote a paper which is in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research called ‘Modality, Normativity and Intentionality’ which is really fantastic.

    His major work is Making It Explicit, which puts forward his systematic approach to the philosophy of language. It’s a monster though (680 pages), so I recommend starting either with Articulating Reasons, which is the short version of MIE (it has several chapters on individual ideas from MIE, but cuts out a lot, including the historical background), or Reason in Philosophy, which is a collection of essays, but starts with a 90 page trip through Kant and Hegel and what Brandom thinks is most valuable about their philosophy. He also has a collection of essays on the history of philosophy called ‘Tales of the Mighty Dead’. He has a serious tendency to read himself into other thinkers, but it’s always very interesting regardless.

    Finally, he also published a book called Between Saying and Doing, which is supposed to be independent of MIE, although it makes more sense if you’ve read it. This is the most technical of his books, and it ties together a bunch of topics in linguistics and AI by way of trying to work out a systematic relation between ‘meaning’ and ‘use’. Jon Cogburn has put up a few good posts reviewing the first few chapters of this book. It’s well worth it, but somewhat difficult at times.


    Comment by deontologistics — 9 July 2010 @ 1:48 am

    • Pete – thanks, that’s really helpful. I picked up Articulating Reasons and Making It Explicit when I was on campus earlier today – as you say, the latter is huge, and this is sort of a hobbyistic pursuit for me, so I’m not convinced I’ve got the stamina – but we’ll see how it goes. I’ll definitely check out the paper, it’s really useful to have an informed recommendation.


      Comment by duncan — 9 July 2010 @ 9:17 am

    • A link to Brandom’s “Modality, Normativity, and Intentionality” is here. Though I may not have done it justice, Pete’s Transcendental Realism paper provides an excellent outline of Brandom’s position, from which he moves forward to his own distinct view.

      I also came across a paper by Daniel Dennett in which he takes on some of the issues I’ve been thrashing away at here. Dennett, writing in response to Brandom’s Making It Explicit, begins by distinguishing between human intentionality and other species to which we can ascribe a limited sort of intentionality. Dennett says that Brandom “obviously agrees” that the fully intentional beings evolved after, and evolved from, the less intentional ones. So then Dennett asks the question: “Shouldn’t the earlier, simpler variety be regarded as more fundamental?” Right at the beginning of the article Dennett says that mostly he and Brandom are in agreement, but that they differ in the “direction” of their work. A link to Dennett’s article is here.

      Maybe after reading and mulling over these two articles I’ll clear up some of my own issues and perhaps have something more to contribute.


      Comment by ktismatics — 9 July 2010 @ 9:46 am

      • I’d say that I only really provide a few aspects of Brandom’s position in the TR essay. I don’t really get to address many of the issues regarding normativity till the end, and there my own approach has a number of important differences. The Dennett review of MIE is absolutely fantastic though. The crucial notion that Dennett attacks is Brandom’s idea of ‘original intentionality’ which Brandom takes to belong to the community. I think he’s right to attack this part of Brandom, as it’s where Brandom gets uncomfortably close to a metaphysics of normativity, which I try to avoid at all costs. I think Brandom’s problem is that he doesn’t really have the resources necessary to say that ‘intentionality’ and other normatively articulated predicates aren’t real properties like ‘mammalian’ and ‘carbon-based’. These are precisely the resources I develop in the TR essay by appropriating Brandom’s ideas.


        Comment by deontologistics — 9 July 2010 @ 9:56 am

      • Thanks for the links ktismatics… I’ll try and check out the Dennett too.


        Comment by duncan — 9 July 2010 @ 11:16 am

  17. I’m sticking this comment at (what is presently) the bottom of the thread because I get confused by my own blog’s nesting structure. I’m also premature in commenting in that I’ve not finished my self-assigned readings on the topic. Regard this as a placeholder for my current understanding, which is of course subject to correction. To wit…

    Pete, like Brandom, exercises reverse engineering: he infers norms from practices, commitments from behavioral regularities, then asserts that the behavioral regularities are motivated by the normative commitments. So, from Pete’s “Dissecting Norms” post: he watches his roommate leave the flat, and awhile later he returns with a grocery sack from which he extracts a container of milk; he pours himself a glass of milk, closes the container, and places it in the refrigerator. From this observed behavioral sequence Pete infers his roommate’s thinking: I want some milk; there is none in the refrigerator; milk can be obtained from the grocery store; if I want milk, I must go to the grocer’s; I want milk, therefore I should go to the grocery store; therefore, I am going to the store. The “should” clause is normative, which imposes a behavioral commitment on the roommate, even if that commitment is only to himself. The roommate could have violated the norm by not going to the store and buying some milk — although Pete probably couldn’t have inferred this counter-normative choice through the behavioral sequence he observed. The counter-normative inference might have gone like this: the roommate sits at his desk saying “I sure wish I had some milk;” Pete replies “Why don’t you pour yourself a glass?” “We don’t have any in the fridge,” replies the roommate. Now Pete can infer a failure on the roommate’s part to act in accord with his normative commitment to himself to satisfy his desire for milk.

    So, per Pete, the norm motivates behavior through commitment to the norm, but the norm doesn’t create the behavior. This sort of norm isn’t ahistorical: it’s contingent on the existence of refrigerators and grocery stores and so on. While the norm affects the roommate’s individual decisions, the norm itself is culturally embedded: it’s generally known in contemporary non-rural culture that milk is bought at grocery stores and preserved in refrigerators. The norm a priori in the sense that it precedes the roommate’s specific craving for milk on this particular day. But the norm is implicit: it’s unlikely that the roommate progressed through the logical sequence, arrived at a normative decision point, and decided to act in accord with his commitment to himself.

    I’ll stop here, just to make sure I’ve got it right — and to go read Dennett’s paper.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 July 2010 @ 7:57 am

  18. […] 21, 2010 So, I’ve been having a conversation, over at ktismatics, with Pete Wolfendale of deontologistics. This post is a continuation of (my […]


    Pingback by Naturalism and Normativity « — 21 July 2010 @ 6:09 am

  19. […] down the road, once I’m much more familiar with Brandom’s work. I’ve already articulated some of the reasoning behind this line of thought in conversation at ktismatics – this post […]


    Pingback by Promissory note: Brandom on autonomy « — 1 August 2010 @ 9:39 pm

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