Rating Philosophers

The underrated and overrated philosopher meme is going round again, and though I don’t normally join in such things, I had a good think about it on the bus today and figured I may as well put down my thoughts. The question of the most underrated is actually more difficult for me, because, even though the figures I’m most influenced by don’t obviously make for great bedfellows (Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Deleuze, Wittgenstein, Quine, Brandom), they’re generally held in fairly high regard. An odd bunch, but hardly a minor tradition. Obviously one could say that some are underrated by certain philosophical traditions, Deleuze by the analytic tradition (despite Delanda’s fine work), or Quine by the continental tradition (despite Badiou’s scattered comments). Hegel certainly has been underrated at times, but isn’t anymore in either tradition. The only person who comes close to properly being underrated is Brandom (surprise surprise). He is becoming more popular, but I think he deserves a bit more recognition yet. He’s very popular in bits of Europe, but not so much in the US and seemingly even less in the UK (alas). I won’t go over his virtues again here, as I’ve done that plenty elsewhere.

Anyway, it seems somewhat of a cheat to pick a living philosopher, so I’ll have to make a different, if not so well informed choice: Wilfrid Sellars. I haven’t read much Sellars, but I’ve read a number of people who’re strongly influenced by him, and I’m increasingly reading more about him, largely thanks to the advice of Ray Brassier. Sellars strikes me as somewhat of the Captain Beefheart of philosophy, few people read (or listen) to him, but his influence is pervasive (at least in the analytic tradition). He has played a central role in shaping debates around rationality, normativity, perception, functionalism, naturalism, and scientific realism, and there are still potentially new insights to be found within his work. Moreover, much like Beefheart, despite his wide influence in a number of spheres, no one seems to be quite like him in the synoptic breadth of his concerns. As Ray has noted (following O’Shea I think), Sellarsians seem to split into right and left camps, either championing his metaphysical naturalism or his complex normative account of thought and action, but rarely do they adopt both at once. All in all, I intend to spend more time getting acquainted with him in the future.

However, if I could pick one underrated book, I’d go with Imre Lakatos’ Proofs and Refutations, which was the dissertation he wrote under Popper after fleeing Hungary. It is a truly remarkable book, presenting a rational reconstruction of the history of the Euler conjecture (a conjecture about the properties of polyhedra) in the form of a fictional dialogue between a number of pupils in an advanced maths class. It is like a slow motion replay of the development of the concept of polyhedra, that displays the curious interplay between inferential necessity and definitional choice that underlies the process of conceptual change. It’s followed by an essay in which Lakatos draws his conclusions, presenting his nuanced view of the philosophy of mathematics, which bleeds into his philosophy of science too (he is obviously indebted to Hegel here, although this influence was cloaked so as to appease Popper). In short, the book is incredibly accessible, even for those of us without formal mathematical training, and its profundity extends well beyond its insight into the philosophy of mathematics.

Turning to the topic of the most overrated philosopher, I think I’m not going to make any friends. I have three choices in mind. None of them are bad philosophers, and I think that they had many interesting and original ideas, some of which I even agree with. I nonetheless think they’re held in too high esteem, and I think that in each case this is because there is a diehard fan base that sees them as the be all and end all of philosophy. Part of this is that again, in each case, they are often the first philosopher people are exposed to, or at least the first that they genuinely connect with. Here we go then: Nietzsche, Sartre and Popper. I’m not sure which to pick, or how to order them, but there are additional considerations in the case of each.

I know a number of Nietzscheans who may be cursing my name at this point, so I feel I should explain why he was the first to come to my mind. My own views probably have more in common with Nietzsche than with either of the other two. I also genuinely think that Nietzsche was a very original thinker, and that he had many interesting and subtle insights. However, I also think his work is fundamentally fragmented and incomplete. Nietzsche’s work contains many interesting ideas that have subsequently been worked out better or in more detail by others, but many spend their time trying to locate finished products in Nietzsche’s writings that simply aren’t there. For example, I am one of those who thinks that Nietzsche is a metaphysician, and I also happen to think that his metaphysics of force is quite promising, but it’s at best a sketch of a metaphysics. It’s interesting to look at, but you’d be better off trying to develop it yourself than trying to find the needed details in Nietzsche. All this is made worse by the fact that one can find some evidence in Nietzsche for pretty much any position you like. This isn’t to say there aren’t good and bad interpretations of Nietzsche. It’s simply the case that his work tends to encourage diverging opinions and obsessive fidelity.

Now for my Sartrean friends. I must qualify my pick of Sartre by saying that I haven’t read the Critique of Dialectical Reason, and given that I’m well aware that this is in the running for most underrated book of philosophy, according to many, this might undermine my choice. Nonetheless, I’ll briefly explain my instinct. I’m one of those people who read Being and Time before reading Being and Nothingness, and so my reaction was largely a “So what?” when I did. I’ve had many discussions with Sartre fans about whether his account of ‘the look’ is more profound than Heidegger’s account of Mitsein, and I’ve yet to be convinced that it’s anything other than a step backwards from Heidegger. The same holds on a number of other points: Sartre’s pools of Nothingness vs. Heidegger’s Nothing, Sartre’s account of the emotions vs. Heidegger’s account of moods, Sartre’s account of bad faith vs. Heidegger’s account of inauthenticity, the list goes on. Moreover, this isn’t because I’m an unrepentant Heideggerian. I agree with Heidegger on a number of points, but don’t endorse most of his work. I’m also shave a soft spot for Levinas, who develops Heidegger in seemingly more interesting ways. If I ever read the CDR my mind may change, but I’ve yet to find reason to have the esteem or affection for him that many do.

Finally, Popper. Out of the three, Popper was actually my first philosophical hero (which might explain some things). This didn’t last all that long, but I still hold a place in my heart for him. He has some valid points, and there is a hard core of fallibilism in his position that is basically right. However, his philosophy of science has been surpassed several times over, and it’s time to move on. It’s been observed before that there are more Popperians in the sciences than there are in philosophy itself, and I suspect this is because Popper gives scientists profound and straightforward answers about what they’re engaged in. It lets them be proud practitioners of falsification and warriors against pseudoscience. Nonetheless, there’s much his ideas can’t deal with, and they were never as original as Popper made them out to be. We can and should do better.

So, there’s my thoughts on the matter. Best get to bed.

20 Responses to “Rating Philosophers”

  1. De: “The only person who comes close to properly being underrated is Brandom (surprise surprise). ”

    Kvond: Wait. Let me get this straight, the only person who is properly underrated is Brandom? I guess would place Brandomians pretty high on the underrated list as well.🙂. I know you say this with humor, but I also know that you are dead serious.

    How about we really try to answer this question.

    Let me give it a shot. One big name. One lost name. One (nearly) living name.

    1. Plotinus. (Influence is historically vast and often occluded.)
    2. Arnauld. (Is almost entirely forgotten but provided some of the most precise and informative critique/summation of Cartesianism, right as it started.)
    3. Rorty. (Often put off as merely a popularizer and something of rhetorician, broadbrushed as a “postmodernist”, but someone who worked harder than most or all to draw the Continental and Analytic schools together, clearing space in the jungle for such a conversation – Second place, Dennett who also is often not awarded the position of a “real” philosopher because of his love of the sciences and the subject of consciousness. Note of course, both of these were students of Quine.

  2. Its also interesting that you rate Nietzsche as heavily overrated, while he had tremendous influence upon at least TWO of your own influences (Deleuze, Heidegger). Perhaps you consider his influence pernicious upon these two, but clearly you rate well two philosophers who rated Nietzsche very high.

    Perhaps there is something of a contradiction.

  3. deontologistics Says:

    I didn’t mean to suggest that Brandom is the only underrated philosopher or even the most underrated, but out of the philosophers that I’m most influenced by he’s the one who I don’t think gets enough attention across the philosophical spectrum. Again, this isn’t because he doesn’t get any attention, but simply because he merits more than he gets. As I said, given my Brandomian commitments, this shouldn’t be too surprising.

    I’m afraid I’m not properly familiar with any of your picks, which I take to be a great oversight on my own part. At the very least I need to acquaint myself more with Rorty and Dennett, given their close association to Brandom and Sellars (Rorty was Brandom’s supervisor in fact). Alas, there is always too much to read, and too much already on my reading list (Habermas has been deserving some attention for a while now, as has David Lewis, Brandom’s other supervisor).

    On the point about Nietzsche, I don’t think that he was a particularly pernicious influence on either Heidegger or Deleuze. True, there are Nietzschean aspects of their work that I don’t agree with, but there are also Nietzschean aspects of their work that I think are essential and rate rather highly (e.g., Deleuze’s more intricate development of something like a Nietzschean metaphysics of force). To be clear, I don’t not rate Nietzsche, I do rate him, I simply think that there are a large number of people who overstate his importance by quite a way. I don’t think there’s a contradiction in any of that.

  4. I’m surprised you don’t know Rorty given your affinity to Brandom. (But I don’t think you will like him due to your love of Brandom and normativity, but one never knows.) The most interesting access point is probably his decade long dispute with Davidson over the priority of “truth” at whose end Rorty finally conceded much of the point to Davidson, and in fact was lead to this concession through the work of his student Ramberg in his fine reconciling essay “Post-Ontological Philosophy of Mind: Rorty vs. Davidson” a real rarity in contemporary philosophy, which caused Rorty to admit that all these years he had misunderstood just what Davidson was saying about normativity. It can be found in the compilation “Rorty and his Critics” edited by Brandom.

    If interested I linked the video of an hour-long conversation between Rorty and Davidson conducted somewhere near the time of their reconciliation towards agreement: http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/05/24/rorty-and-davidson-talk/ . You can always put it on in the background.

    As to Nietzsche do you feel that Deleuze and Heidegger are among those that overstate his importance? I mean Deleuze really was pretty high on Nietzsche, and I’m not sure he would ever count himself as being non-Nietzschean.

  5. Hi Pete, Hi kvond, sorry to butt in – kvond, I’m curious why you see Brandom and Rorty as opposed? (If indeed you do – I’m just going by what you say in the last comment.) Seems to me like Brandom is basically continuing (and, to my mind at least, deepening) Rorty’s project? There are points of divergence, to be sure, but – to me – there’s fundamental agreement. I think a good way to understand a lot of Brandom’s stuff, actually, is as an elaboration of various of Rorty’s positions, within technical debates that Rorty himself basically didn’t have the patience or philosophical temperament to bother with.

  6. duncan: I’m curious why you see Brandom and Rorty as opposed? (If indeed you do – I’m just going by what you say in the last comment.) Seems to me like Brandom is basically continuing (and, to my mind at least, deepening) Rorty’s project?

    kvond: I actually don’t consider them strictly opposed, but I know how much DE loves a particular aspect of Brandom, and that is the Kantianishiness of his emphasis on normativity, and this is the one thing that Rorty repeatedly dug his heels in against, as one could see in the Davidson vs. Rorty disagreement. I suspect that given that DE finds the notion of normativity (and philosophy’s capacity to form something of a meta-discourse about it) as one of the most appealing aspects of Brandom, Rorty, especially in his rhetorical anti-philosophy style, will rub him the wrong way. I did leave the possibility that this would not be so.

    Rorty refused to be technically,or professionally called a philosopher, I believe at Stanford he requested to be a professor of Comparative literature (or something similar). This is exactly the kind of thing that DE would hate, I suspect.

  7. Ah, yes, I see where you’re coming from – thanks. Myself I think that Brandom is more ‘Rortyian’ in this respect than he’s sometimes taken to be: he’s trying to embed the Kantian emphasis on judgement (and, still more, the Hegelian emphasis on mutual recognition and sociality) within a pragmatics that’s (to my mind) strongly Rortyian. Although his understanding of the nature of that pragmatics is certainly influenced by the systematic thinkers he’s drawing on.

    The question of meta-discourse is an interesting one. Brandom makes some remarks about it in a recent paper called I think Metaphilosophical Reflections on the Idea of Metaphysics, where (if I remember right!) he basically says that he’s happy for people to try to construct as many philosophical meta-languages as they can, so long as we understand that these are exploratory – ways of testing out conceptual resources, attitudes, and inferences – and should provide us with insight and understanding as much though our ability to shuttle between them, seeing the same terrain from different perspectives, as by their all-encompassing explanatory power. It’s definitely a different philosophical approach to Rorty (who, as you say, has more of a ‘pox on both your houses!’ disposition, and is happy to call for an end to metaphysics) – but I think it’s motivated by a similar attitude towards philosophical explanation.

    But I’ll stop hijacking the thread now, sorry Pete.

    • Duncan,

      Do you think that Rorty would agree with Brandom’s projects? I imagine that there would be something more than disposition that separates them, although I certainly can say that Brandom came from the Rorty tree.

      • Well, Brandom’s more of a rationalist than Rorty – he thinks he can give (pragmatist) reasons for according the language games associated with formal logic, and with the analytic philosophical communities preoccupied by formal logic, a certain privilege in terms of the resources required for the adequate self-understanding of the human animal. I don’t think there’s any way Rorty would have endorsed that – Rorty’s just as or more interested in things like (for instance) literature’s role in human self-understanding: Rorty has a more catholic sense of what’s important in human linguistic and social practices. So that’s a big difference between the two. (And myself, I’m definitely on Rorty’s side here.)

        That said – on most other important matters, I think Brandom and Rorty are very close. So for instance, I think a useful way of thinking about Making It Explicit is as a huge, laborious rejoinder to the kinds of critiques that were leveled at Rorty’s critique of the philosophical concept of representation in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Rorty does this broad-brush-stroke historical critique of theories of representation, and everyone jumps all over him saying “well, if you reject philosophies of representation, you can’t say [blah], and you’ve lost the ability to think [blah].” And in response Brandom painstakingly demonstrates that, no, you can still say blah and still think blah, starting from a Rortyian set of commitments.

        Now it’s true that in pursuing that project, Brandom makes certain revisions to Rorty’s original claims. Brandom’s idea is that he can embed the concept of objective representation within an inferentialist semantics, and that he can embed his inferentialist semantics within a pragmatist framework. That means that he can show people committed to various kinds of analytic philosophical discursive resources – and to the concept of objective representation generally – that they can still use those resources, but with a modified, pragmatist understanding of what they mean. You can still refer, and talk about reference, but you ought to understand what you’re doing in ways that don’t presuppose a referentialist metaphysics. In this sense Brandom’s philosophy is essentially a much more technically developed continuation of Rorty’s pragmatist critique of representationalist philosophy. Now Rorty, I think, starts off making a stronger claim than Brandom – he starts of claiming that the concept of representation in general is incoherent. Brandom’s claim is more modest – that representationalist philosophy is incorrect, but that the concept of representation can be used legitimately. My sense is that Rorty came to accept Brandom’s view and many of Brandom’s arguments on this issue as an extension and in some ways an improvement on Rorty’s own earlier views. This is from an interview Rorty gave to The Believer in 2003:

        BLVR: Do you think there have been any particularly good, distinctive challenges to your pragmatism?
        RR: The thing that’s made me have the most doubts about a lot of what I’ve said is [University of Pittsburgh analytic philosopher] Robert Brandom’s work. I was saying that we should get rid of the notion of “representation” altogether. A lot of pragmatist philosophy consists in saying that there is no relation between mind, or language, and reality called The Accurate Representation of Reality, because criteria of accuracy of representation are impossible to specify, and pressing the issue leads to epistemological skepticism, and so on. I used to think that the whole metaphor of representation was so thoroughly misleading that it should be dropped, in favor of descriptions that serve our purposes, as opposed to descriptions that get at The Way It Really Is. Brandom convinced me that we could hang on the notion of representation, and that it probably would be better to do so, so as not to appear to be paradox-mongering.

        BLVR: In what sense can you hang onto it?

        RR: By saying that it’s okay to use it on the retail level, but not on the wholesale level. It’s okay to say that we’re representing the stars better and better these days through finer and finer spectroscopic analysis and astrophysical explanations. We understand viruses and genes better than we did fifty years ago, and we are representing them, if you want to put it that way, more and more accurately. But if you ask the wholesale question—“Are we representing The Universe more correctly, now that we study genes and antimatter and stuff like that?”—that’s a really bad question. All we can say is that new descriptions, vocabularies, discourses have proved useful, and, internal to those practices, discourses, language-games, we have criteria for betterness of representation. What we’ll never have are large-scale, wholesale, philosophical notions of accuracy of representation, as in, “We are closer to the Intrinsic Nature of Reality than our ancestors.” Making that distinction between wholesale and retail uses of representation meant a lot to me, but to a non-philosopher it might seem a quibble.

        Now of course some people might think that Rorty had it right first time, and that Brandom is ruining Rorty’s philosophy, by persuading him of all sorts of problematic things. But I see them as pursuing the same project in different ways; I think Brandom was right to suggest this modification to the articulation of Rorty’s position, and I think Rorty was right to incorporate this aspect of Brandom’s work into his own views. Anyway, Rorty’s always enthusiastic about Brandom when I’ve seen him discuss his work in interviews etc. – and I think that’s more than just a personal relationship, but also an awareness that they’re basically pursuing the same philosophical endeavour.

        This is all, of course, my own interpretation of Brandom’s work and relationship to Rorty – Pete or others might have a very different sense of how all this joins up.

  8. deontologistics Says:

    Duncan: Don’t worry about hijacking the thread. I’m all up for this place being a forum for discussing Brandom’s work. It’s a pity I don’t have the time to write more stuff on the technical details of it, but I’ll hopefully be able to get to it after the thesis is done (and I’m free of Heidegger).

    There is definitely a strong influence of Rorty upon Brandom, and you’re right about where they overlap to some extent, but I think you’re also overemphasising how much they overlap. For instance, I think it’d be wrong to say that Rorty was more influential upon (or had more in common with) Brandom than Sellars did. You might find the paper Brandom gave at the recent 20th anniversary conference of the publication of PMN (audio here: http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2009/11/rorty-and-the-mirror-of-nature/), which goes into some detail about precisely what kind of role Brandom sees for the notion of representation against modern anti-representationalists like Huw Price (who is really worth reading btw, for a number of reasons). The other paper you must read, if you haven’t already is the arc of thought paper (http://www.pitt.edu/~brandom/downloads/Rorty%20AAT%2008-3-17%20a.doc), which does a beautiful job of showing how the same motivations underlying Rorty’s eliminative materialism lead to his later pragmatist stance, and where Brandom thinks he goes wrong.

    Two additional points about the influences on Brandom: 1) Brandom’s idea that we should encourage as many different ways of looking at the terrain as possible (in opposition to Rorty) is something he gets off of his other supervisor David Lewis, who had a penchant for working out the consequences of theses he didn’t even think were true. I think there’s something fairly positive about this attitude, but it shouldn’t be confused with out and out pluralism about theoretical frameworks. 2) Brandom is also quite influenced by Davidson and Dennett, and their differing notions of interpretation. He sees his own project as a successor to both in some ways. There’s a great bit in the introduction to Tales of the Mighty Dead that shows how he takes his own account of rationality to be a successor to Davidson’s. Most of his remarks about Dennett are at appropriate points in MIE, but there’s also a fantastic review of MIE by Dennett in which he endorses a lot of what Brandom is doing (http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/Brandom.pdf). I also think Dennett puts a finger on where some of the problems with Brandom’s notion of intentionality lie (not that these invalidate his project entirely).

    Kvond: I’ve got nothing in principle against Rorty, though I suspect you’re right that I’ll dislike much of his later work for precisely the reasons you identify. I certainly went through a period when my own views were very much like Rorty’s (as far as I understand them) owing to the heavy influence of the later Wittgenstein on the one hand and Deleuzian materialism (via DeLanda) on the other. So I came at Brandom not from a Kantian direction, but from something quite opposed to it. Brandom simply showed me that in order to fulfill the pragmatist promise of the later Wittgenstein (to properly account for meaning as use) you have to recognise that there are certain core features of language (and thought) that aren’t historically variant (even if their instantiation is). This is why I’m slightly worried about Duncan’s appropriation of Brandom (as much as I’m pleased he’s reading him) insofar as I don’t see how one can remove this kind of minimal transcendentalism from his work.

  9. duncan: [quoting Rorty]”By saying that it’s okay to use it on the retail level, but not on the wholesale level. It’s okay to say that we’re representing the stars better and better these days through finer and finer spectroscopic analysis and astrophysical explanations. We understand viruses and genes better than we did fifty years ago, and we are representing them, if you want to put it that way, more and more accurately.”

    kvond: This is the crux of the question of Rorty’s so-called revision – and as with Rorty’s other revisions, for instance on the question of truth with Davidson, Rorty doesn’t so much feel that he has changed his mind, but rather narrowed exactly what is important to him to hold onto in the face of very good arguments – Rorty was fond of adding to just this sort of description (the above) something outrageous sounding, like “We also know a whole lot more about the Holy Spirit than they did in the 3rd century.” This is just the thing that would infuriate people (especially on the Analytic side) who felt that in a very important way philosophy WAS a kind of meta- or master discourse that could separate out claims from knowing more bout the Universe such as star systems from claims about knowing more about he Holy Spirit. Rorty’s whole campaign against philosophy was about depriving it the Authority to definitively place one claim as more “true” than the other.

    So I wonder, if you detach the “retail” of star system talk and the “retail” of Holy Spirit talk from the “wholesale” of How the Universe really is, in Rorty’s acceptance of some level of representational discussion, does Rorty’s main position on philosophical authority still stand? In otherwords has Rorty changed his mind on this fundamental limit he has argued for against philosophy? Or has he accepted a distinction that fundamentally undermines it? Or, it all pretty much stays intact?

    This, it seems, is where the rubber hits the road in the previous distinction you were trying to make between Brandom’s Rationalism and Rorty’s distance from Rationalism. Rorty about a year before his death had a very generous email conversation with me on his view of Spinoza and forwarded me his latest (updated) essay/lecture on Spinoza. He told me that the problem he had with Spinoza was that he felt Spinoza thought that it is always better to say “It is raining.” rather than some poetic or mythological description of it (if I recall). Aside from my strong disagreement with this reading – though it did cause me to think – it goes right to just what Rationalism is claiming, and how Rorty felt about it. It wasn’t that all the “discoveries” (inventions) of Rationalism were false, it was just that there was no way to boot-strap them to the place of authority, that gave one discourse an unassailable superiority over another. Do you feel that Brandom is still in this spirit? And do how do you think that both Brandom and latter-day Rorty would fall on the question of the “retail” of Holy Spirit knowledge?

  10. DE: “Brandom simply showed me that in order to fulfill the pragmatist promise of the later Wittgenstein (to properly account for meaning as use) you have to recognise that there are certain core features of language (and thought) that aren’t historically variant (even if their instantiation is). ”

    kvond: This is what it comes down to perhaps. Is there a leverage point at which philosophy, by virtue of its rational powers, is able to “represent” at the so-called Retail level the Wholesale of these features, and thereby gain a position of authority or “meta” that privileges it over all other discourses?

    Davidson, who also spent a lot of time working on these (or other) so-called invariants, actually just used his discoveries/inventions to reduce the powers of philosophical authority. I think much of Rorty’s long standing rejection (in the midst of appropriation) of Davidson was that he felt that Davidson was making claims or moves on behalf of Philosophy’s authority that in the end he realized just wasn’t the case. Davidson rather had in mind that what we learn about rationality and beliefs actually made the problems of representation unknot themselves, in a kind of Wittgensteinian way. I’m not sure that Brandom is accomplishing the same sort of thing.

    DE: “Brandom is also quite influenced by Davidson and Dennett, and their differing notions of interpretation. ”

    kvond: I don’t know if this is the case, because you are (relatively) new to Rorty, Rorty was probably the one great popularizer of Davidson, making Davidson’s claims available to a much, much wider audience and set of arguments, and I suspect that it was through Rorty’s influence that he came to Davidson. Again, I might be wrong, but to position Davidson’s influence against that of Rorty seems like an odd thing to say given that Rorty considered himself a full-scale Davidsonian in many ways.

    Also as a small note, it seems odd to refer to the “later work” of Rorty (which you said you suspect you won’t like) if you mean his post-Analytic days. It is true that he began as an Analytic philosopher, but the huge proportion of his work is all “later” work. If later work would mean anything, it would be probably his turn back towards Davidson (and Brandom), and this probably is something you would be more friendly to.

  11. […] essay comes back to me due to some Rorty discussion we have been having over at Deontologistics, Rating Philosophers, I wanted to post it again to cenotaph the pleasure of knowing Rorty through his books, and the […]

  12. Hi guys, there’s a lot here so apologies if I don’t respond properly to something important. Also, apologies that this comment is so incredibly long.

    Pete – I’m not meaning to downplay other influences on Brandom – of which of course you’re right, there are plenty. (One of the incidental things I like about Brandom is how good he is at snaffling up resources from whatever he reads – he finds something that can be used, some insight he can re-apply, in most everything he engages with, it sometimes seems.) (The downside of course is that some of his readings of the canon can therefore be pretty forced, since he’s always emphasising the aspects of a thinker that he wants to re-deploy himself – but I think he gives fair warning about this reading practice, and I generally like his engagements with the tradition. Anyway -).  I’m focussing on the Brandom-Rorty connection partly because of the conversation above.  But I also thing there’s definitely a strong and central influence, more so than for most of the other figures you mention, that’s I think sum-uppable in shorthand as a pragmatist critique / embedding of philosophical representationalism.  I don’t regard what I’m saying as incompatible with any of the other influences you mention though. (On the Davidson point – I don’t know whether Brandom came to Davidson through Rorty – I’ve got no clue of the intellectual history there – but I agree with kvond that the Davidsonian elements of Brandom are often part-and-parcel of the Rortyian elements of Brandom. I don’t see any conflict there.)

    My feeling is that ‘the Rorty connection’ is a bit underestimated in some of the reception of Brandom, partly because Brandom’s style and (apparent) interests are so different – Brandom’s heavily into the technical end of philosophy of logic and language, and Rorty’s doing his lit crit and public intellectual stuff.  The core of Making It Explicit, though, for me, is a (painfully) detailed account of how you can have a strongly pragmatist position, which understands conceptual content in social-perspectival terms, without being vulnerable to all the charges that were endlessly flung at Rorty – most of all, that of ‘relativism’.  I think I detect a frustration, in Brandom, with Rorty’s somewhat relaxed (and indeed on occasion sloppy) attitude about this stuff – Brandom thinks that these critiques of pragmatism can be responded to more robustly (in terms of the technical analytic discourse) than Rorty tended to himself. Anyhow, I think it’s a useful way of looking at Brandom’s work.

    In terms of historical invariants, I’m not really opposed to that kind of ‘transcendentalism’ in Brandom – I take Making It Explicit to argue that the social practice of deontic scorekeeping must exist in some sense in any community that engages in the communication of conceptual content – and I find that very plausible. That’s also to say: I think it’s empirically very plausible that all human communities (and indeed I myself would say some non-human animal communities, though the nature of the distinction between humans and other animals is one of the points where I suspect I’ll want to diverge from Brandom in the long run) do and have engaged in some kind of deontic scorekeeping practices. I see nothing wrong in principle with asserting that kind of historical invariance for one’s categories, providing the categories are indeed general enough, which I think most of Brandom’s plausibly are. I suspect our disagreement (if we have one) over Brandom’s work isn’t therefore so much at the historical invariant end (though we may in the end disagree about exactly what can legitimately be taken as historically invariant in the relevant sense), as it is about the relation between Brandom’s ‘transcendental’ categories and empirical social practices. I take Brandom to ultimately understand the former in terms of the latter (though certainly in Making It Explicit, he in some respects black-boxes the question of ‘instantiation’) – whereas I think you see Brandom as asserting a stronger dividing line between the two? I take Brandom’s ‘transcendentalism’ to be another way of asserting the distinction he sometimes makes between ‘what the trick is’, versus ‘how the trick is done’. Brandom’s interested in both questions, but he thinks that the latter (‘how the trick is done’) is largely an empirical question only answerable by scientific research (including neuroscience, etc.), whereas some aspects of the former can be answered more abstractly, by those whose expertise is in philosophy, rather than in scientific fields. So I take Brandom in Making It Explicit to be grounding his semantic categories in kinds of social practice, but refusing (for reasons of disciplinary modesty) to ask or answer the question of exactly what those social practices consist in either physiologically or in any given social community.

    kvond – I haven’t read the Rorty piece you link to, or your reflections on it yet (though I will of course), but thank you. Responding just to your comment here for now…

    Rorty’s whole campaign against philosophy was about depriving it the Authority to definitively place one claim as more “true” than the other.

    So I wonder, if you detach the “retail” of star system talk and the “retail” of Holy Spirit talk from the “wholesale” of How the Universe really is, in Rorty’s acceptance of some level of representational discussion, does Rorty’s main position on philosophical authority still stand? In otherwords has Rorty changed his mind on this fundamental limit he has argued for against philosophy? Or has he accepted a distinction that fundamentally undermines it? Or, it all pretty much stays intact?

    To answer this – my own view is that Rorty hasn’t changed his mind here, but has, as you say, narrowed and refined his position (which I think strengthens the position, and articulates it better). So my own choice among the options you give is that Rorty’s main position on philosophical authority still stands, and indeed stands stronger than before, because Rorty is here articulating it in a way that does not leave it vulnerable to a certain set of apparently fairly compelling philosophical critiques. My view is that Brandom’s work is also doing this – is articulating (or re-articulating) Rorty’s core position on the status of truth, and the relation between philosophy and truth, in a way that strengthens and better expresses the position by showing the ways in which it is not vulnerable to what might seem like damning philosophical criticisms. Brandom goes about this task in a very different way from Rorty. I can’t remember who wrote this now, but I remember some opponent of Rorty’s (I think in the Brandom-edited volume) complaining that when all is said and done, Rorty’s responses to critics often amount to a shrug. I don’t think that’s fair to Rorty, who often provides good and clear arguments for his views, but it does capture something about his attitude – a certain ‘take it or leave it’ insouciance (which doesn’t trouble me, I should say). Brandom, by contrast, takes the debate to a highly technical terrain – his inclination, when dealing with critics of pragmatism, unlike Rorty, is to show in incredible detail how the things the critic wants to be able to say can still be said in a pragmatist (and, derivatively, inferentialist) idiom – they just can’t be said with the guarantee of metaphysical authority that representationalist theories of truth often invoke.

    On Brandom’s rationalism versus Rorty’s non-rationalism – to me this amounts to a specific move that Brandom makes, or I guess two specific moves. One is that Brandom seems to privilege linguistic practice over other kinds of social practice. Second is that Brandom seems to privilege the linguistic practices associated with the philosophy of formal logic over other linguistic practices. The kind of privilege he gives these practices is also quite specific – he thinks that these linguistic practices are required in order to make explicit the conceptual content implicit in the social practices of sapient creatures, in such a way that those creatures can then reflexively comprehend the basis for their ability to make that content explicit. In other words, Brandom thinks he needs his philosophy of formal logic in order to explain the reasons why his own philosophy is justified (if it is). Personally I have a hunch that Brandom has gone wrong here somewhere – I think there’s a faulty move somewhere towards the start of the second half of Making It Explicit, and that actually Brandom could justify his own position using far fewer resources than he seems to think he needs (I think Rorty’s already done a lot of the work on that in broad-brush-stroke terms, in fact). But I don’t think there’s any question that Brandom privileges linguistic practice, and within linguistic practice privileges the analytic discourse around logic.

    The question, though, is what, for Brandom, this privilege consists in. On my reading, Brandom emphatically doesn’t give these discourses the kind of metaphysical privilege that would grant them master-discourse philosophical authority: the whole thrust of Brandom’s philosophy is (to my mind) pushing against this move. The point of Brandom’s philosophical apparatus is to explain how objective normative and conceptual content can be understood in social-perspectival terms, as created by the discursive practices of asking for and giving reasons. In Brandom’s view, all the reasons that can be asked for and given are metaphysically equal – at the ‘wholesale’ level, there is nothing to choose between them. (Which is another way of saying that there really is no ‘wholesale’ level, for Brandom, in the discursive practice of asking for and giving reasons. All there ever are are ‘retail’ level conversations, some of which try to claim ‘wholesale’ authority – Rorty’s point.) (This is not the same as saying that there are not some discourses – e.g. philosophical ones that Brandom participates in – that are more general and abstract than others, and that can in principle explain how other discourses function in ways that aren’t available to those discourse themselves. In that sense some kind of ‘wholesale’ / ‘retail’ distinction could in principle still be made; it’s just that this would be a distinction of intended descriptive generality, and (in Brandom’s opinion) of expressive range, rather than of metaphysical privilege.) (And of course it’s only a specific slice of conceptual content, albeit an important one, that Brandom thinks philosophy is better suited to expressing – he doesn’t think, as far as I can tell, that philosophy is in every respect more expressively rich than other discursive genres; other discursive genres are, one would assume, more expressively rich than philosophy in other respects and on other topics.)

    The point is that for Brandom conceptual content ultimately comes down to the social practice of asking for and giving reasons, and that no ‘birds eye view’ can grant specific reasons more authority than others, independent of the ongoing social practices of conversation and negotiation. A judgement of authority can only be made from a specific social-perspectival location, and that social-perspectival location has to try to justify its own inferential and (derivatively) referential claims, to itself and to others, using the same discursive resources as any other social-perspectival location. There is no metaphysically privileged discursive perspective. Brandom folds his own philosophical claims into this account. He thinks he’s right about the status of truth – but he doesn’t think he’s right because he has access to a metaphysical perspective on the nature of truth that others have failed to grasp. He thinks he’s right because he can engage in the social practice of asking for and giving reasons in a way that (he believes, and aims to persuade us) should persuade people of the legitimacy of his inferential commitments, given other inferential commitments that he also thinks people should hold (for the same sorts of reasons). And, separately but relatedly, he’s willing to give time to alternative philosophical approaches, which can also provide insight and understanding, without making a metaphysical judgement about the legitimacy of one over the other. I agree with Pete that this doesn’t necessarily amount to a philosophical pluralism – Brandom still thinks that his inferentialist, pragmatist idiom has greater explanatory power than other philosophical idioms in many respects. But he’s I think willing to accept the idea that there are likely to be areas in which alternative idioms are more expressively powerful, and he seems to think that there’s no guarantee that idioms are wholly translatable into each other – which again might seem like a relativist position – but I don’t think it is if one understands the sense in which Brandom means it. (Which is as a form of theoretical modesty, rather than of theoretical self-undermining.)

    So in terms of the question you ask towards the end of your comment – I think Brandom is definitely working in the same spirit as Rorty, in the sense that he thinks the discoveries of natural science, or of linguistic philosophy, or whatever, can entirely legitimately be taken to be true – but he also thinks we shouldn’t understand what that truth consists in in terms that bootstrap a specific discourse out of its ongoing pragmatic social context: truth should ultimately be understood in social-perspectival terms. Making It Explicit is basically one big argument as to why those two commitments (a concept of objective truth; a social-perspectival understanding of the content of that concept of objective truth) are not only compatible, but are in fact mutually reinforcing. Personally I think he makes that case a lot more compellingly than Rorty does, largely because he goes into so much greater detail about the operations and consequences of the relevant social practices – but I think it’s fundamentally the same case Rorty was making.

    In terms of the Holy Spirit – I genuinely don’t know what Brandom’s opinion would be on this. One thing I like about Brandom is that he’s quite good at separating out the different levels of his argument – he rarely confuses commitments that he holds because of his general philosophical position, with commitments he holds for reasons provided by other discursive contexts (including other philosophical contexts). My assumption given his overall demeanour is that he’s an atheist, but I don’t think there’s anything in his philosophy I’ve read that commits him to that. His work is strongly naturalist in inclination, but for the reasons I’ve gestured at above, it involves no metaphysical commitment to naturalism. It does involve a practice-theoretic account of conceptual and normative content, and that would make it incompatible with a number of religious philosophies I think – but there are also religious philosophies that understand themselves in practice-theoretic terms, so I don’t think Brandom’s commitment to a practice-theoretic explanatory approach rules out religious conviction per se. And, as I say, Brandom’s happy in principle to entertain alternative philosophical approaches, as ways (if nothing else) of mapping out inferential spaces. He generally seems to be thinking (as Pete suggests) more along David Lewis lines when he says that though, so I don’t know what he’d say in actual discussion about the Holy Spirit. Perhaps he’ll address these themes when his book on Hegel finally comes out, since obviously this is a preoccupation of Hegel’s: but it’s also possible he’ll just ignore the issue and do his inferentialist thing. (Or maybe he’s already discussed this stuff in material I haven’t read – I’ve still got a heap of Brandomiana to absorb.)

    Anyway, thanks for giving me the chance to unspool some thoughts on all this. As Pete says, I am interested in an appropriation of some of Brandom’s insights – or at least in a deployment of them in a more directly social-theoretic context. But I’m also interested in getting Brandom’s work right in its own terms; the above is meant to be aiming at the latter, rather than the former. As I say though, it’s just my present take on his work – lots more to read.

    (On that – thanks for the suggestions Pete. I’ve not read either of the Brandom pieces, and I will. We’ll see how they square with what I say above! I have read the Dennett piece and I think that, while it’s generally likable, Dennett is dramatically misunderstanding how Brandom’s conceiving sociality: I don’t take Brandom to be doing anything metaphysically problematic with his discussion of communities. I also think Dennett (understandably) has the wrong end of the stick in terms of what Brandom’s rather perverse explanatory order is meant to be achieving. But I need to address all this properly – I’ll try to put up a post on Dennett’s criticisms and issues related to them once I’ve worked through a bit more of the relevant literature. And – if it still needs saying – thanks again for putting me on to Brandom. As is obvious, I’m finding his work enormously useful and interesting.)

  13. duncan thanks for a great, content-filled reply, and sorry if I only snag up the one aspect that I find a bit unanswered. But it is the part that wanted to push for clarity on anyways.

    duncan: “…he thinks the discoveries of natural science, or of linguistic philosophy, or whatever, can entirely legitimately be taken to be true – but he also thinks we shouldn’t understand what that truth consists in in terms that bootstrap a specific discourse out of its ongoing pragmatic social context: truth should ultimately be understood in social-perspectival terms.”

    and then,

    “My assumption given his overall demeanour is that he’s an atheist, but I don’t think there’s anything in his philosophy I’ve read that commits him to that. His work is strongly naturalist in inclination, but for the reasons I’ve gestured at above, it involves no metaphysical commitment to naturalism. It does involve a practice-theoretic account of conceptual and normative content, and that would make it incompatible with a number of religious philosophies I think – but there are also religious philosophies that understand themselves in practice-theoretic terms, so I don’t think Brandom’s commitment to a practice-theoretic explanatory approach rules out religious conviction per se.”

    kvond: I have to say I am not really understanding the level at which you are answering the question, unless you are simply saying that you aren’t sure. Brandom is an atheist and Rorty was an atheist, but belief in God wasn’t parcel to what Rorty was asserting. What he claimed was that Yes we know all kinds of things about star systems that were not known before, but we also know all kinds of things about the Holy Spirit which were not known before (his point being that at the council of Nicea beliefs about the Holy Spirit were communally codified, heresies were excluded, and Theology went about its business then discovering/inventing all kinds of very complex distinctions which made up a body of knowledge of the Holy Spirit that simply could not exist before the 3rd century or so.

    And the outrageousness of the claim, Rorty’s specialty, was that philosophy could not provide a discriminator that made these different kinds of knowledges, or rather, one was not “more true” because it corresponded to “how things really were”. Knowledge of star systems and knowledge of the Holy Spirit had both increased since the 3rd century.

    Perhaps I misunderstand your reference to religious belief, but could you make a pass again at trying to ferret out whether Rorty’s half-move towards retail representationalism, and Brandom’s position itself, allowed this sort of limit on parsing claims. It’s not that knowledge about the Holy Spirit is “religious” per se that gets Scientistic thinkers boiling, but that it’s supposed causal source, the states in the world that supposedly cause these beliefs and knowledges (to use a Davidsonian bent), don’t exist. In other words, the representations don’t “correspond”, the one Mirror of Nature argument that Rorty refuses to lay its claim. We are comparing Theology to Astronomy.

  14. Thanks kvond, let me have another pass – I’m not trying to dodge the question, but I may be missing where it’s coming from. (I don’t know or have forgotten the text(s) where Rorty makes the Holy Spirit remark.) I also know very little about the discursive spaces that actually talk about the Holy Spirit – which I realise isn’t strictly necessary in order to answer the general philosophical point, but I wish I knew the discourse better, and was more fluent with the topic.

    Anyway, to recapitulate very very briefly, one of the things I like about Brandom (and one of the things I think is most Rortyan in his work) is his emphasis that you can’t have a ‘birds eye’ perspective on different discursive communities / projects – that your own discursive
    project, whether you admit it or not, operates at the same level of ‘metaphysical’ justification as everyone else’s (i.e. there’s no master discourse, no metaphysics in that sense, at all). That would of course include neuroscientific discourse & discourse about
    the Holy Spirit & everything else. Everyone occupies a specific discursive space – your subjectivity is constituted, in part, by the web of inferential commitments that you inhabit and that inhabits you. In observing other discursive spaces, you must (in order to
    observe them in the first place) bring to bear your own commitments and judgements: such judgements are required in order even to take another discursive space as being a discursive space at all.

    Now, w/r/t the judgement that we “know more” about the Holy Spirit now than we did in the 3rd century – this is a claim that would be assessed in different ways in different discursive spaces. Some people would say that since the Holy Spirit doesn’t exist, we can’t know more about it now than we did in the 3rd century, because there’s nothing to know. Some people (I’d imagine the overwhelming majority of Christians since the 4th century who know and care much about doctrinal matters) would say that – yes, we know more about the Holy Spirit now than we did then, the First Council of Nicea got it more or less right, we’ve built on that decision in our communal intellectual practice ever since, etc. On the other hand, I think it’s at least possible that if I spent a few days researching, I could find some communities of self-identifying Christians (albeit, from the point of view of any mainstream Christian community, heretics) who think that the Nicene Creed got it badly wrong, and that the heresies that the Nicene Creed rejected actually had things more or less right, and that because those heresies were made into heresies some of the knowledge possessed by members of those (retrospectively) heretical communities has since been lost, and that therefore in fact we now know less about that which we currently call ‘the Holy Spirit’ than we did in 300 AD. I’ll also bet that given some research time, I could find some recent theologians who are talking about the absolute unknowability of the divine, and saying that earlier knowledge-claims about the Holy Spirit were hubristic and erroneous, and that in fact we now know no more about the Holy Spirit than we did even pre-Nicene Creed. [Let me emphasise, I wish I knew more about the history of Christianity, so please forgive any grotesque blunders in this stuff, and substitute in something that adequately makes the general point I’m aiming for.]

    So to say that we now know more about the Holy Spirit than we did in the 3rd century is actually to choose between communities, and between the webs of discursive commitments that constitute those communities as communities. Rorty’s probably making a largely uncontroversial choice here, in terms of Christian discourse – but it’s still a choice, and I think needs to be recognised as such when considering his claim.

    So my own sense on this – informed but not determined by the Brandomian apparatus – is that Rorty’s over-reaching himself (or, alternatively, being provocative), when he says this. His thinking is probably something like: scientific communities engage in an ongoing intellectual practice that posits objective entities about which we take our knowledge to accumulate over time. Christian communities also engage in an ongoing intellectual practice, which is certainly less committed to the ideal of incremental progress in objective knowledge, but which nonetheless regularly claims advances in insight. Metaphysically speaking – or meta-discursively speaking – these two sets of intellectual practices should be treated in exactly the same way. Therefore, when saying that we now know more about the natural world than we did in the third century, thanks to science, we should also be willing to say that we now know more about the Holy Spirit than we did in the third century, thanks to theology.

    But – and I’m confident Brandom would agree with me on this at least – the last sentence of my last paragraph doesn’t follow from the rest. If we take it that science has given us more knowledge than we had in the third century, that’s because we’ve bound ourselves in certain ways, discursively, inferentially, to the scientific community. If we take it that theology has given us more knowledge than we had in the third century, that’s because we’ve bound ourselves in certain ways to the theological community. Neither of these (really big) commitments follows from Rorty’s pragmatism, in itself. These are ‘retail’ decisions (in the sense that these decisions aren’t in themselves dictated by the basic pragmatist philosophical commitments that both Brandom and Rorty advocate). So I (in I take it a Brandomian spirit) would totally endorse Rorty’s larger claim – that meta-discrusively or metaphysically there’s no particular difference between these communities (and their beliefs) – but I don’t think Rorty’s being very rigorous if he says, in his own voice, that we now know more about the Holy Spirit than we did in the 3rd century. This claim serves its provocative function, and may be communicatively useful for that reason, but it doesn’t in fact follow from Rorty’s basic philosophical position, I don’t think.

    So my real answer to your question is: I don’t know what Brandom would say. But the above is what, to my mind, follows from the Brandomian apparatus, as I understand it.

  15. One issue here of course is that Brandom himself operates at different levels. Making It Explicit makes its arguments at a very general and abstract level – it’s about the conditions of possibility of discourse, in a sense (albeit a very deflationary sense). For that reason there’s lots of material Brandom doesn’t cover in Making It Explicit, because the material doesn’t belong at that level of generality. But Brandom is perfectly happy to then run around and engage in lots of more detailed downstream work – work that in no way intrinsically follows from Making It Explicit‘s claims, but that Brandom himself thinks is worthwhile. I suppose my point is that in my earlier remarks about Brandom’s atheism I was talking about Brandom himself, and in the comment just above I’m talking about the apparatus of Making It Explicit. I guess the latter is what you were mainly asking.

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