Making It Explicit

I’m starting another pass through Brandom’s Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (1994). This post addresses the preface.

Apart from a brief dalliance with Wittgenstein and a bit of reading in logic, I was unaccustomed to analytic discourse when my late father commended this book to me two decades ago. My dad normally took a verging-on skeptical Socratic stance and was extremely reserved about endorsing anything, but he said this might just be the most overall satisfying account of things he had ever seen.

It’s been a while, but it feels like home ground now.

In contrast with the overtly Hegelian meta-ethical concerns of A Spirit of Trust, the focus here is more on advancing contemporary philosophy of language, and the other philosophers he discusses are mainly in the analytic tradition.

Already on page xii, Brandom says that authority is only intelligible against a background of correlative responsibility. This should have already prevented people from attributing to him any sort of one-sided appeal to existing norms.

He is extremely polite about representationalism, merely presenting inferentialism as an alternative. “The aim is not to replace that familiar idiom, but to enrich it.” The kind of inference at issue is in the first instance not formal but material. I think representation has an indispensable role as a kind of shorthand in ordinary communication, but want to emphasize (as Brandom does in the later Spirit of Trust) that it is always derivative, and therefore cannot play any sort of foundational role.

The book begins with normative pragmatics. Instead of starting from intentional states of individuals, this will ultimately address normative statuses as constituted through networks of open-ended mutual recognition. I always liked this interactive and reason-centered rather than subject-centered approach.

In place of the direct interpretation of intentional states, he puts the unattractively named but important notion of deontic scorekeeping, which provides a detailed, low-level model of the workings of recognition. The scorekeeping metaphor impeded my uptake, and I only learned the other day that linguistics has a well-established concept of deontic modality (literally mentioned in Making It Explicit, it turns out) that seems to be as committed to recognizing degrees of “should”, etc., as deontological ethics would seem to be to the unconditional application of ground-level rules. Deontic scorekeeping is keeping track of semantic, epistemic, and practical commitments, takings of responsibility, and entitlements, as well as attributions thereof.

In place of correctness of representation and consideration of truth conditions, he puts a consideration of inferential proprieties. Expression will explain the implicit structure of linguistic practices. Logical vocabulary is said to have an expressive role in this sense. Logic is not mainly about proving truth, but about explaining what we mean with our nonlogical vocabulary. It is “the organ of semantic self-consciousness”. An alternative approach via truth rather than inference would still treat truth as a normative matter rather than a factual one.

He will add a reasonable explanation of identity in terms of substitution in natural language, and an utterly fascinating discussion of anaphora, which is the technical linguistic term for chains of pronomial reference, also related to the constitution of identity. The whole aims at “a unified vision of language and mind”. (See also Sapience, Sentience; Material Inference; Determinate Negation; Material Consequence; Normative Pragmatics; Inferential Semantics; Objects, Anaphora; Scorekeeping.)