Thoughts on Brandom's Inferentialist Project

I just finished Robert Brandom’s Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism for Jon Cogburn’s graduate seminar on Brandom, Mark Okrent, and Teleosemantics. I had already read some of Brandom’s work on Heidegger, but this was my first introduction to his inferentialist project proper. Although I disagree with him on several points, and find his argumentation style and technical jargon to be less than helpful, I found his overall project to be largely agreeable with my own intuitions. This is not surprising given Brandom’s self-ascribed pragmatism and his rejection of representationalism.

In the introduction, he nicely lays out a set of nine binaries within a philosophical space of alternatives that I found to be very helpful. I relay them here:

  1. Assimilation or Differentiation of the Conceptual
  2. Conceptual Platonism or Pragmatism
  3. Is Mind or Language the Fundamental Locus of Intentionality?
  4. The Genus of Conceptual Activity: Representation or Expression
  5. Distinguishing the conceptual: Intensionalism or Inferentialism
  6. Bottom-up or Top-down Semantic Explanation?
  7. Atomism or  Holism
  8. Traditional or Rationalist Expressivism?
  9. Is the Semantic Task of Logic Epistemological or Expressive?

Brandom, of course, chooses the latter option in each case. Ok, let me break it down.

(1) is concerned with whether we want to explain the conceptual capacities of humans in terms of a continuity or discontinuity between animals minds and our own. Most naturalists these days accept the continuity hypothesis for evolutionary reasons. Brandom puts his foot down here and says language-use (mastery of propositional discourse) sharply separates the conceptual content of humans from nonverbal animals. I like this thesis. Anyone who is familiar with my research knows that I agree with Julian Jaynes in claiming (1) consciousness depends on language and, accordingly, (2) only humans are conscious in the strict sense of metacognition (introspective thought) and narratization (verbal self-regulation). So when Brandom places a sharp mental divide between language users and nonlanguage users, I think he is on solid footing. However, as much as I like his theory of human cognition, his discussions of the complexity of nonhuman animal cognition are woefully inadequate. He makes a slight concession to this point, but there is a WORLD of difference between thermostats and animals no matter what Brandom says. Animals do so much more than “differentially respond to pregiven stimuli”. To think otherwise is to fall into the Myth of the Given (for animals).

(2) I also like Brandom for his pragmatism and his critique of representational internalism. Although he applies it philosophical only to the linguistic domain, the lesson is clear: conceptual content is cashed out in terms of a function i.e. in terms of doing something. Having a mastery of concepts is not a matter of housing an Idea inside a mental container, but rather, of “knowing how (being able) to do something”. This seems right to me and accords with my own radical functionalism. I not only think that a fine-grained microfunctionalism is the way to make sense of nonverbal conceptual content, but that functionalism is also the best way to explain consciousness itself. Metacognition and narratization, after all, are very useful skills to possess. As is the precursor of language.

(3) I have to agree with Brandom on number 3 as well. Language is the origin of mindedness as such. For Brandom, the ability to intend, to have genuine beliefs and desires, is dependent on the mastery of language. This is another Jaynesian thesis, although it needs to be qualified. Intention is a technical term and should not be confused with the animacy and agency humans share with all lifeforms. Being the agent of your own action is not the same as being an intentional agent. For Jaynes, voluntary (intentional) action is a matter of linguistically telling ourselves what to do. “I will write a blog post today”. This is called narratization. As Brandom says, “thinking is a kind of inner saying”. This is in accord with what’s called social-linguistic constructivism (the classic exemplar of this approach is the 20th century developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky). Daniel Hutto’s recent work has also provided an important boon to the thesis that the development of “mind minding” itself (folk psychological understanding) depends on the right kind of exposure to narrative practice. Again, I refer to Jaynes.

(4) I also agree with Brandom’s expressivism. I don’t have a lot to say on this one other than I can see the influence of people like Heidegger and Charles Taylor on his thought. I am thinking of Charles Taylor in particular though. He has a nice account of expressivism as an alternative to representationalism in one of his essays. The basic thrust is that human conceptual prowess has less to do with holding various representations in our mental storehouse and more with “codifying some sort of knowing how in the form of a knowing that“. Hence the phrase: “Making it explicit”.

(5) From here on out my opinions start to become more fuzzy. While I agree with Brandom that mastery of propositional concepts  and their inferential relations makes for a sharp boundary between humans and animals, I’m not sure that this is the best way to go about arguing for such a chasm. For one, Brandom is committed to the prima facie  implausible thesis that animals don’t have desires. Rather than trying to retain such loaded terms for his theory of human cognition while denying them to nonhuman animals, I think Brandom’s project would be better served by allowing animals to have desires and finding some other term to describe the “intending” which is unique to human consciousness (voluntary will as opposed to mere behavioral reaction). I find Jaynes’ term “Narratization” to be useful in this regard.

I’m not going to comment on the rest of them. Needless to say, I like Brandom. I think he is mainly right, especially his emphasis on the importance of language for mindful conceptual activity as such. I will almost definitely cite him as an authority in my future work. But his theory will never convince anyone so long as it tries to rework traditional vocabulary. Brandom’s theory is radical. Radical theories need radical vocabularies. Unfortunately, Brandom is too absorbed in the world of philosophy to look outside his window and see the vibrant intellectual landscape that is 4EA cognition. If we are going come up with a radical new theory of concepts, then I think it will be best to do so in a vocabulary that isn’t liable to making people’s headspin everytime they wrap their head around the idea that animals and infants don’t have desires. 4EA theory helps us make sense of the agency of nonhuman animals and the conceptual prowess of humans while accepting both the continuity and discontinuity between verbal and nonverbal animals.

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