What We Saw

In passing in the last post I argued that “because I saw it” is not a reason, but a mere reiteration of an assertion. I claimed that we ought always to be able to say something more about why we believe what we do, and suggested that in the current example, this would typically take the form of more detailed claims about what we saw. (See What and Why.)

Previously, I argued against John McDowell’s claim that the space of reasons includes cases in which empirical claims may be non-inferentially justified by reference to other empirical observations. In the current analogy, what McDowell counts as justification in such cases amounts to saying “because I saw something else”. In effect, it is an appeal to another completely indeterminate “seeing”.

By contrast, when we make more detailed claims about what we saw, even though these supplementary claims are not themselves inferences, because they analyze the initial “what”, they may provide the basis for subsequent inference to the original “what”. The axis of justification shifts from other immediate observations to articulated claims about the original observation.

Because the justification now appeals to articulated content rather than to other seeings that are as completely indeterminate as the first, it can now be inferential. Such inferential justification is weaker than deductive proof; unlike a mathematical proof, for instance, it is potentially refutable. But now we have truly entered the space of rational dialogue.

In the situation of “he saw X, she saw Y“, no dialogue is possible. “He saw, she saw” is just as vacuous as “he said, she said”. In both these latter cases, one mere assertion is merely counterposed to another mere assertion, and we can say categorically that no insight could ever be gained from the exchange.

By contrast, as soon as the discussion shifts from a contest of assertions to the articulation of content, something can potentially be learned from it, whether or not we end up endorsing what is said.

An empirical observation may still provide a useful heuristic basis for belief about the world. Additional observations may add to the heuristic “weight” of that basis. But contrary to McDowell, I would not count that heuristic basis as part of the space of reasons. I call something a “reason” if and only if it provides a basis for some reasoning, which is to say some inference or inferences. To call something a non-inferential “reason” makes no sense.

And contrary to both McDowell and Brandom, I do not recognize the existence of non-inferential “knowledge” at all. Every observational report is just a claiming about appearance, and no mere claiming about appearance should count as knowledge.

What we have in the putative case of “observational knowledge” is observational belief. An observational belief may turn out to be well-founded, but any such well-foundedness depends on factors that go beyond the brute fact of the existence of observations.

We can have dialogue about claims about other claims. We cannot have true dialogue about claims about raw appearances — or indeed, properly speaking, about first-order claims at all.

This, I think, is part of the upshot of Hegel’s “logic of being”. Any first-order claim “A is Bconsidered in isolation fares no better than Parmenides’ saying of Being. It is logically vacuous, just because it is isolated. Isolation would mean, for instance, that we have no definition for A or B.

(The way I am using “first order” here for claims is different from the way it is used in predicate logic. In standard mathematical logic, what I am calling an “isolated first-order claim” corresponds to a proposition, rather than any construct in predicate logic. According to Frege, a proposition can only mean either “true” or “false”, so we have a similar lack of information.)

In Aristotelian terms, the claim then reduces to a mere saying, which is actually charitable, because for Aristotle, in the absence of meanings for A and B, we would have failed to express a proposition at all. Mere saying in this sense actually fails to properly say anything at all. If we don’t know what A and B are, “A is B” is the logical equivalent of arbitrary noise.

Conversely, when we do take a first-order claim as meaningful — as we indeed do all the time — we must always already have some higher-order perspective on it that makes it meaningful. All meaningful saying is saying something at a higher-order level.

Attitude

The popular adage “everyone has the right to their opinion” is a partial truth. It gestures at something like Kantian autonomy. But the other side of the coin is that Kantian autonomy does not operate in a vacuum; it is always embedded in what Wilfrid Sellars called the space of reasons, where holding a commitment is implicitly to invite questions about the reasons for it, and then about the actual validity or applicability of those reasons. As ethical beings we are responsible for our opinions.

An attitude in the ordinary unqualified sense may operate as a cause of behavior in the modern sense, but because nothing prevents such an attitude from being completely arbitrary, a mere attitude cannot serve as a justification for anything. Attitudes in this sense have a sort of vain Cartesian irrefutability, in the same way that mere appearances do. There is a level at which if you say something appears to you thus-and-such, that mere appearance is incontestable. But it is incontestable precisely because nothing follows from it.

Brandom, on the other hand, is only interested in attitudes from which something is taken to follow. When he talks about the attitude-dependence of norms, I think what he really has in mind is more specifically a dependence on what analytic philosophers call propositional attitudes. This additional specification is crucial. An endorsement of any proposition whatsoever can still qualify as a propositional attitude, but every proposition has a “place” in the space of reasons that situates it in a multi-dimensional spectrum of goodness of justification. Criteria for goodness of justification can of course be debated too, but this still means that the justification for any propositional attitude is subject to evaluation. We may judge a propositional attitude to be poorly founded and therefore wrong, but it still cannot be completely arbitrary, because its justification can be evaluated.

I don’t think the same can be said for the Enlightenment authors Brandom cites as promoting a dependence of norms on attitudes, like Pufendorf and Rousseau (see Modernity, Voluntarism; Modernity, Rouseau?). Their legal and political voluntarism explicitly purports to trump any evaluation in terms of the space of reasons. This is in spite of the fact that those authors were already departing from the most traditional notion of ethical norms as simply somehow pre-given. Precisely because I am deeply sympathetic to Brandom’s critique of the unilateral authority-obedience model, I disapprove of these authors’ appeals to sovereignty.

Brandom shares his mentor Richard Rorty’s concern for democratic values, and suggests that normativity be considered as a historical development. But in spite of his concern for “semantic descent” to relate the higher-order, overtly philosophical concepts Kant and Hegel focused on to the level of ordinary empirical concepts used in daily life, he still treats ordinary concepts in a general way. Consequently, when he thinks about ordinary concepts, he still does so in a way analogous to that of Kant and Hegel. This is not a bad thing; I think he is by far the strongest at this high level. Fortunately, the weaker remarks about concrete historical antecedents for his views are peripheral to the main development of his thought.

Justification

Epistemological foundationalism always sounded like a patent logical absurdity to me, an attempt to escape the natural indefinite regress of serious inquiry by sheer cheating — a bald pretense that some content could be self-certifying and therefore exempt from the need for justification. I have a hard time being polite about this; such a claim feels to me like a deep moral wrong.

The kind of justification we should care about is not some guarantee of absolute epistemic certainty, but a simple explanation why a claim is reasonable, accompanied by a willingness to engage in dialogue. All claims without exception should be subject to that. As Sellars said, “in characterizing an episode or state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says.” (Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, p.76.) Aristotle would agree. (See also Verificationism?; Empiricism; Free Will and Determinism.)