McDowell on the Space of Reasons

John McDowell’s paper “Sellars and the Space of Reasons” (2018) provides a useful discussion of this concept. Unlike Brandom, who aims to complete Sellars’ break with empiricism, McDowell ultimately wants to defend “a non-traditional empiricism, uncontaminated by the Myth of the Given” (p. 1).

McDowell begins by quoting Sellars: “in characterizing an episode or a 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” (ibid; emphasis added).

For Sellars, to speak of states of knowing is to talk about “epistemic facts”. A bit later, McDowell says that Sellars’ epistemic facts also include judgments and uses of concepts that might not be considered knowledge. Not only beliefs but also desires end up as a kind of epistemic facts. McDowell uses this to argue that the space of reasons is a version of the concept of knowledge as justified true belief. I want to resist this last claim.

McDowell points out that knowledge for Sellars has a normative character. Sellars also regards the foundationalist claim that epistemic facts can be explained entirely in terms of non-epistemic facts (physiology of perception and so on) as of a piece with the naturalistic fallacy in ethics.

McDowell cites Donald Davidson’s contrast between space-of-reasons intelligibility and the kind of regularity-based intelligibility that applies to a discipline like physics, but does not want to assume there is a single model for all non-space-of-reasons intelligibility.

He notes that Sellars contrasts placing something in the space of reasons with empirical description, but wants to weaken that distinction, allowing epistemic facts to be grounded in experience, and to be themselves subject to empirical description. “Epistemic facts are facts too” (p. 5). I prefer going the other direction, and saying empirical descriptions are judgments too.

The space of reasons is only occupied by speakers. Sellars is quoted saying, “all awareness of sorts, resemblances, facts, etc., in short all awareness of abstract entities — indeed, all awareness even of particulars — is a linguistic affair” (p. 7, emphasis in original). “And when Sellars connects being appropriately positioned in the space of reasons with being able to justify what one says, that is not just a matter of singling out a particularly striking instance of having a justified belief, as if that idea could apply equally well to beings that cannot give linguistic expression to what they know” (ibid).

“‘Inner’ episodes with conceptual content are to be understood on the model of overt performances in which people, for instance, say that things are thus and so” (p. 8). “What Sellars proposes is that the concept of, for instance, perceptual awareness that things are thus and so should be understood on the model of the concept of, for instance, saying that things are thus and so” (p. 10). All good so far.

To be in the space of reasons, “the subject would need to be able to step back from the fact that it is inclined in a certain direction by the circumstance. It would need to be able to raise the question whether it should be so inclined” (pp. 10-11, emphasis in original). But McDowell says — and I agree — that this is without prejudice as to whether there is still a kind of kinship between taking reasons as reasons, on the one hand, and the purposeful behaviors of animals, on the other.

McDowell acknowledges that the idea that epistemic facts can only be justified by other epistemic facts is easy to apply to inferential knowledge, but rather harder to apply to the “observational knowledge” that he claims should also be included in the space of reasons. For McDowell, observational knowledge is subject to a kind of justification by other facts.

McDowell and Brandom both recognize something called “observational knowledge”, but Brandom thinks that it necessarily involves appeal to claimed non-epistemic facts, whereas McDowell wants to broaden the concept of epistemic facts enough to be able to say that observational knowledge can be justified by appealing only to epistemic facts. I would prefer to say, observational judgments are subject to a kind of tentative justification by other judgments.

McDowell says that acquiring knowledge noninferentially is also an exercise of conceptual capacities. This clearly implies a noninferential conception of the conceptual, and seems to me to presuppose a representationalist one instead. This has huge consequences.

He says that the space of reasons must include noninferential relations of justification, which work by appeal to additional facts rather by inference. But where did those facts come from? In light of Kant, I would say that we rational animals never have direct access to facts that just are what they are. Rather, if we are being careful, we should recognize that we can only consider claims and judgments of fact, which may be relatively well-founded or not. But appeal to claims of fact for justification is just passing the buck. Claims of any sort always require justification of their own.

As an example, McDowell discusses claims to know that something is green in color. As non-inferential justification in this context, he says one might say that “This is a good light for telling the colours of things by looking” (p. 18). That is fine as a criterion for relatively well-founded belief, but that is all it is.

A bit later, he adds, “I can tell a green thing when I see one, at least in a good light, viewed head-on, and so forth. A serviceable gloss on that remark is to say that if I claim, in suitable circumstances, that something is green, then it is” (p. 19).

This is to explicitly endorse self-certification of one’s authority. It is therefore ultimately to allow the claim, it’s true because I said so. I think it was a rejection on principle of this kind of self-certification that led Plato to sharply distinguish knowledge from belief.

As Aristotle pointed out in discussing the relation between what he respectively called “demonstration” and “dialectic”, we can apply the same kinds of inference both to things we take as true and to things we are examining hypothetically. We can make only hypothetical inferences (if A, then B) from claims or judgments of A; we can only legitimately make categorical inferences (A, therefore B) from full-fledged knowledge of A — which, to be such, must at minimum not beg the question or pass the buck of justification.

The great majority of our real-world reasoning is ultimately hypothetical rather than categorical, even though we routinely act as if it were categorical. One of Kant’s great contributions was to point out that — contrary to scholastic and early modern tradition — hypothetical judgement is a much better model of judgment in general than categorical judgment is. The general form of judgment is conditional, and not absolute.

I think it’s fine to include beliefs, opinions, and judgments in the space of reasons as McDowell wants to do, provided we recognize their ultimately hypothetical and tentative character. But once we recognize the hypothetical and tentative character of beliefs, I think it follows that all relations within the space of reasons can be construed as inferential.

I don’t think contemporary science has much to do with so-called observational knowledge of the “it is green” variety, either. Rather, it has to do partly with applications of mathematics, and partly with well-controlled experiments, in which the detailed conditions of the controls are far more decisive than the observational component. The prejudice that simple categorical judgments like “it is green” have anything to do with science is a holdover from old foundationalist theories of sense data.

I would also contend that all putative non-space-of-reasons intelligibility ultimately depends on space-of-reasons intelligibility.

Logic for Expression

In recent times, Robert Brandom has pioneered the idea that the role of logic is primarily expressive. In his 2018 essay “From Logical Expressivism to Expressivist Logic”, he says this means its purpose is “to make explicit the inferential relations that articulate the semantic contents of the concepts expressed by the use of ordinary, nonlogical vocabulary” (p. 70).

In my humble opinion, this is what logic was really supposed to be about in Aristotle, but the tradition did not follow Aristotle. Aristotle insisted that logic is a “tool” not a science, but most later authors have assumed the contrary — that logic was the “science” of correct reasoning, or perhaps the science of consequence relations. Several scholars have nonetheless rediscovered the idea that the purpose of logical demonstration in Aristotle is not to prove truths, but to express reasoned arguments as clearly as possible.

Brandom says that “the task of logic is to provide mathematical tools for articulating the structure of reasoning” (p. 71). People were reasoning in ordinary life long before logic was invented, and continue to do so. But the immensely fertile further development of logic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was mostly geared toward the formalization of mathematics. Reasoning in most specialized disciplines — such as the empirical sciences, medicine, and law — actually resembles reasoning in ordinary life more than it does specifically mathematical reasoning.

According to Brandom, “The normative center of reasoning is the practice of assessing reasons for and against conclusions. Reasons for conclusions are normatively governed by relations of consequence or implication. Reasons against conclusions are normatively governed by relations of incompatibility. These relations of implication and incompatibility, which constrain normative assessment of giving reasons for and against claims, amount to the first significant level of structure of the practice of giving reasons for and against claims.”

“These are, in the first instance, what Sellars called ‘material’ relations of implication and incompatibility. That is, they do not depend on the presence of logical vocabulary or concepts, but only on the contents of non- or prelogical concepts. According to semantic inferentialism, these are the relations that articulate the conceptual contents expressed by the prelogical vocabulary that plays an essential role in formulating the premises and conclusions of inferences” (pp. 71-72).

“Material” relations of consequence and incompatibility have a different structure from formal ones. Formal consequence is monotonic, which means that adding new premises does not change the consequences of existing premises. Formal contradiction is “explosive”, in the sense that any contradiction whatsoever makes it possible to “prove” anything whatsoever (both true statements and their negations), thereby invalidating the very applicability of proof. But as Brandom reminds us, “outside of mathematics, almost all our actual reasoning is defeasible” (p. 72). Material consequence is nonmonotonic, which means that adding new premises could change the consequences of existing ones. Material incompatibilities can often be “fixed” by adding new, specialized premises. (As I somewhere heard Aquinas was supposed to have said, “When faced with a contradiction, introduce a distinction”.)

Brandom notes that “Ceteris paribus [“other things being equal”] clauses do not magically turn nonmonotonic implications into monotonic ones. (The proper term for a Latin phrase whose recitation can do that is ‘magic spell’.) The expressive function characteristic of ceteris paribus clauses is rather explicitly to mark and acknowledge the defeasibility, hence nonmonotonicity, of an implication codified in a conditional, not to cure it by fiat” (p. 73).

“There is no good reason to restrict the expressive ambitions with which we introduce logical vocabulary to making explicit the rare material relations of implication and incompatibility that are monotonic. Comfort with such impoverished ambition is a historical artifact of the contingent origins of modern logic in logicist and formalist programs aimed at codifying specifically mathematical reasoning. It is to be explained by appeal to historical causes, not good philosophical reasons” (ibid). On the other hand, making things explicit should be conservative in the sense of not changing existing implications.

“…[W]e should not emulate the drunk who looks for his lost keys under the lamp-post rather than where he actually dropped them, just because the light is better there. We should look to shine light where we need it most” (ibid).

For relations of material consequence, the classical principle of “explosion” should be replaced with the weaker one that “if [something] is not only materially incoherent (in the sense of explicitly containing incompatible premises) but persistently so, that is incurably, indefeasibly
incoherent, in that all of its supersets are also incoherent, then it implies everything” (p. 77).

“The logic of nonmonotonic consequence relations is itself monotonic. Yet it can express, in the logically extended object language, the nonmonotonic relations of implication and incompatibility that structure both the material, prelogical base language, and the logically compound sentences formed from them” (p. 82).

Material consequence relations themselves may or may not be monotonic. Instead of requiring monotonicity globally, it can be declared locally by means of a modal operator. “Logical expressivists want to introduce logical vocabulary that explicitly marks the difference between those implications and incompatibilities that are persistent under the addition of arbitrary auxiliary hypotheses or collateral commitments, and those that are not. Such vocabulary lets us draw explicit boundaries around the islands of monotonicity to be found surrounded by the sea of nonmonotonic material consequences and incompatibilities” (p. 83).

Ranges of subjunctive robustness can also be explicitly declared. “The underlying thought is that the most important information about a material implication is not whether or not it is monotonic — though that is something we indeed might want to know. It is rather under what circumstances it is robust and under what collateral circumstances it would be defeated” (p. 85).

“The space of material implications that articulates the contents of the nonlogical concepts those implications essentially depend upon has an intricate localized structure of subjunctive robustness and defeasibility. That is the structure we want our logical expressive tools to help us characterize. It is obscured by commitment to global structural monotonicity—however appropriate such a commitment might be for purely logical relations of implication and incompatibility” (pp. 85-86).

“Logic does not supply a canon of right reasoning, nor a standard of rationality. Rather, logic takes its place in the context of an already up-and-running rational enterprise of making claims and giving reasons for and against claims. Logic provides a distinctive organ of self-consciousness for such a rational practice. It provides expressive tools for talking and thinking, making claims, about the relations of implication and incompatibility that structure the giving of reasons for and against claims” (p. 87).

Formal and Informal Language

Paul Ricoeur suggested that more formal kinds of explanation and informal understanding are related to one another by the first playing a mediating role in the second, and used this in a very nice reconciliation of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics. From the formal side, the mathematician Haskell Curry — whose work has greatly influenced the theory of programming languages — argued in the 1950s that the ultimate metalanguage for all formal languages can only be ordinary natural language. Amid the tremendously rich development of formal languages in the 20th century, this point got somewhat lost, but more recently Robert Brandom’s expansion of Wilfrid Sellars’ work on material inference has provided a detailed account of how this works. The circumscribing role of informal natural language in all formal developments is related to the great Kantian insight of the primacy of practical over theoretical reason.

Space of Reasons

Wilfrid Sellars (1912-89) was one of the greatest American philosophers of the 20th century. A pragmatist trained in the analytic tradition, he rethought analytic philosophy from a broadly Kantian point of view, and famously criticized the “Myth of the Given”. His positive reference to Hegel as “that great foe of immediacy” made a great impression on the young Robert Brandom.

Sellars originated the phrase “space of reasons”, now much used by Brandom and others. He said that to hold a commitment at all is to invite questions about the reasons for it. The particular reasons for a commitment involve other reasons, which involve still others, and so on, forming a “space” that can be explored through dialogue.

I would note that in Aristotelian terms, the space of reasons would be a kind of field of potentialities. Because the space of reasons is potential rather than actual, it involves a vast multiplication of alternate (counterfactual) paths, structures, and fibrations. I associate it with an open field of potential Socratic questioning and negotiation. By contrast, both individualized ethos and the beliefs generally shared by an existing community would be kinds of actuality, in which particular alternatives are already selected, but may change over time. (See also Normativity; Intentionality.)