Brassier, Sellars and Davidson

On January 30, 2012, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Modern philosophical anthropology can trace its genesis to early Enlightenment attempts to reconcile the naturalistic insight that humans are conditioned by history and nature with their status as ‘self-governing’ subjects. Although this project is associated with a post-Kantian idealist and hermeneutic tradition, the problem of reconciling nature with autonomy has not gone unaddressed in the post-war analytic tradition. Anglo-American writers like Sellars, Davidson, Dennett, McDowell and Brandom have made subtle attempts to account for the distinctiveness of human culture and agency while accommodating graded Darwinian commitments to explaining its emergence from pre-linguistic forms of representation or action.

Ray Brassier’s recent talk on Wilfrid Sellars’ account of language games ‘How to Train an Animal that Makes Inferences: Sellars on Rules and Regularities’ illustrates one strain of this Darwinian rationalism. According to this picture, non-rational beings  may have adaptive responses to bits of their environments, but cognitively rational agents can have refined and well articulated thoughts about them. Cognitive rationality according to this view supervenes on practical rationality – a capacity to learn and apply public standards of conduct or warranted assertion.

For example, vervet monkeys will emit a distinct alarm call in response to the sighting of a leopard (‘a loud barking’) to the sound elicited by the sight of an eagle. The leopard alarm elicits a scramble to the ‘thinner branches’ of nearby trees (leopards being cats) whereas an eagle alarm causes a scramble under bushes where the vervets are safe from an aerial attack (Deacon 1997, 56).

These signals can be glossed in terms of their function in adaptively salient situations. However, according to the Sellarsian model of functional semantics which Brassier sets out, human sentences and thoughts don’t get their meaning by being coupled with specific environmental inputs and outputs in this way but only via inferential relations to other sentences and a class of  rules which connect language to its outside: language entry rules (governing transitions from perceptions to observation statements) and language departure rules (governing transitions from beliefs/sentences to actions). It is our socially transmitted grasp of inferential norms and the rules for getting into and getting out of a language-game which constitute these links and thus meaning and thought itself.

Depending on a speaker’s knowledge state, the English sentence ‘The king is dead’ could license a vast range of inferences from the formal existential generalization ‘Something is dead’ to a range of material inferences such as ‘there is a new King and it is Pete’ or ‘Mission accomplished!’ and could, likewise, occur in response to a vast range of perceptions (seeing an obituary in a newspaper, observing the mistless speculum above the mouth of the expired monarch or a flat line on an oscilloscope, etc.). The dispositions that ground the inferential linkages between sentences and extra-linguistic events are highly complex. Finally, as Brassier emphasizes in his presentation, full linguistic competence includes the capacity to draw metalinguistic inferences about the linguistic utterances and inscriptions of an object language OL in a metalanguage ML (ML being a part of OL in natural languages).

According to Sellars, to ‘grasp’ the meaning of a term in a language is to have understood its position in this inferential economy rather than to stand in some non-natural relation to an abstract entity (Sellars 1974, 430). The capacity for rational thought, is likewise, a capacity for discursive thought insofar as unvocalized thoughts have the same inferential roles as sentences. This is no more problematic than ‘oder’ in German and ‘or’ in English being equifunctional since inferential roles are substrate neutral.

As Brassier says, this model of linguistic understanding is appealing to naturalists so far as it treats discursive thinking as an embodied competence or ‘know how’ rather some mysterious capacity for grasping abstract entities (Sellars 1954).

It also gives formal expression to the difference between animal signaling and human language. The adaptive role of a trait like the vervet alarm depends on its utility in a particular environmental context. The inferential role of a sentence is holistic since it depends on the inferential roles of all other sentences or words in a language. There is thus no way to map the selected function of a detection or signaling system onto an inferential role. Brassier argues that the distinction between evolved functions and rationally articulated inferential affiliations conceptually demarcates the objective order of things and the rational order of concepts.

Pressure can be applied to Sellars’ account without relinquishing its naturalistic insights, however. For example, once we allow that linguistic knowledge consists largely in grasping material inferences – those expressing domain-specific understanding – a principled distinction between semantic knowledge and knowledge of the world is difficult to enforce, as Donald Davidson has argued on independent grounds. A Davidsonian radical interpreter who wishes to interpret an alien language L from scratch might represent the inferential roles of the sentences of L in a recursive truth theory à la Tarksi but getting to this point would require the interpreter to have a large body of true beliefs about the features of the world that the utterances of L describe – e.g. the behaviour of colour predicates or the mechanical properties of liquids. If the knowledge of a successful radical interpreter of L is a model for the understanding of a competent speaker in L, then grasping meanings cannot be a matter of grasping intra-linguistic relationships alone.

Even the possessor of a semantic theory which works reliably over the community of L-speakers will confront refractory utterances in which the speaker might be construed as uttering nonsense, untruths, or, like Joyce and Mrs Malaprop, iterating words in ways not covered in the theory! In those cases she needs to decide whether to revise her theory or treat these cases as degenerate. It should be obvious that there could be no purely linguistic rules which determined how to proceed here since the problem is to determine what language OLj is being spoken by framing one’s metalanguage (the theory T for Lj) to fit the empirical facts. If the predicament of the radical interpreter is a model for the predicament of the ordinary speaker of a language, then we will regularly be in the position of having to figure out meanings that are not prescribed by shared rules.

Slavoj Zizek’s challenge in the Q&A session following Brassier’s talk exemplifies this situation nicely. He cites the following exchange between Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald’s characters in Brassed Off (the two characters are standing outside Fitzgerald’s house at night):

Fitzgerald: “Would you like to come in for a coffee”?

McGregor: “There is a problem. I don’t drink coffee”?

Fitzgerald: “I haven’t got any coffee”

Reading this armed with books of community-wide semantic and pragmatic theory alone would be idiotic. One needs to grasp standard usage sufficiently to know that the conventions are being joked to get the implicature of “I haven’t got any coffee.” But the ‘prior theory’ of English is just an input to interpretation. It does not afford a rule that assures a correct reading. If this kind of situation recurs in human social intercourse then there better be more to our ability to ken than our grasp of a prior set of inferential roles.

Languages as stable systems of conventions or rules shared between interlocutors need not exist for such interpretation to be possible (Davidson 1984, 14). Speakers may use words and different ways without communication being impossible. Even radical differences in usage need not forestall communication as along as they have the wit and luck to arrive at good passing interpretations of each another. It follows that language cannot be a kind of translucent glass which stands between human thinkers and an inhuman world. As Frank Farrell has observed, if the ontologically deflationary theories of thinkers like Davidson or Derrida are on the right track neither thought nor language can have the requisite “hardness” to stand between us and things in this way (Farrell 1996).

If so, Brassier’s conception of thought as an internally related ‘symbolic economy’ distinct from nature is unhelpful. Admittedly it provides an initially bracing way of understanding realism as a commitment to some radical difference between the non-conceptual world of transcendent nature and the immanent space of ‘reasons’. However, such invocations of radical otherness depend on a reification of something that is transcended by the Other and there are independent grounds for holding that this gives us a misleading account of the nature of both.

Davidson, Donald (1984). Communication and convention. Synthese 59 (1):3 – 17.

Davidson, Donald (1986). ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’, in Ernest LePore (ed.) Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson (Oxford: Blackwell).

Farrell, Frank (1996). Subjectivity, Realism and Postmodernism: The Recovery of the  World in Recent Philosophy ( Cambridge University Press).

Deacon, T. (1997). The symbolic species: The co-evolution of language and the human brain. London: Penguin

Sellars, Wilfrid (1954). Some reflections on language games. Philosophy of Science 21 (3):204-228.

Sellars, Wilfrid (1974). Meaning as functional classification. Synthese 27 (3-4):417 – 437.


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