Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Nor

Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Nor
Etica & Politica / Ethics & Politics,
XI, 2009, 1, pp. 321-350
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
David Lauer
Institut für Philosophie
Freie Universität Berlin
In this paper, I offer a detailed critical reading of Robert Brandom’s project to give an
expressive bootstrapping account of intentionality, cashed out as a normativephenomenalist account of what I will call genuine normativity. I claim that there is a
reading of Making It Explicit that evades the predominant charges of either reductionism
or circularity. However, making sense of Brandom’s book in the way proposed here involves correcting Brandom’s own general account of what he is doing in it, and thus presenting the argumentative structure of Making It Explicit in a new light.1
0. Introduction
Robert Brandom’s Making It Explicit has been the subject of much critical
debate.2 It seems to me, however, that the nature of the project as well as the
exact argumentative architectonic of its execution have been widely misunderstood. Brandom, I believe, is not entirely exempt from blame for this, as
he is partly unclear, partly misleading, and, as I will claim, partly even mistaken about what he is actually doing at the different stages of his aweinspiring book. In this paper, I offer a critical interpretation of Making It
Explicit in order to clarify the debate. I hope to show that if one reads Making It Explicit in the way embraced here, the account that it offers can be
seen to evade the two predominant charges pressed against it, namely the
charge of reductionism and the charge of circularity.
My paper comes in three parts: In the first part I will lay out what I take
the project of Making It Explicit to be, which is to develop an expressive
bootstrapping account of intentionality by elaborating a normativephenomenalist account of what I will call genuine normativity. I will specify
I would like to thank Alice Lagaay for helping me to get clearer about what I am actually doing in saying these things, and for refining my English.
2 Brandom 1994, henceforth MIE.
David Lauer
the claim of the normative-pragmatist project, its explanans, its method, and
the condition of adequacy it would have to meet. In the second part, I will
review, in a series of steps, how the project is executed in the story that Making It Explicit tells. At each stage that the story reaches, I will pause to ask
whether the condition of adequacy has been met, and it will turn out that it
is apparently not met anywhere near the place where Brandom claims that it
is being met. I will therefore argue that the best interpretation of the story
requires quite dramatic changes to the official picture as to what is being
done by telling it. In the third part, I will develop that interpretation, which
includes reading Chapter 9 as providing the key to a dissolution rather than a
solution of the problem of accounting for genuine normativity. The crucial
point of the dissolution, according to my reading, lies in acknowledging the
irreducibility of two perspectives that are both indispensable for us to make
sense of discursive practice: the normative-interpretational stance of the
agent and the descriptive stance “from sideways on” of the observer.
1. The Project of Making It Explicit
1.1. Normative Pragmatics: The Very Idea
The project of Robert Brandom’s Making It Explicit is to develop a normative pragmatist account of intentionality and meaning in thought and talk.
Let me spell out what this means.
Having intentionality in the sense Brandom is concerned with just means
being minded or having thought, in the sense of having access to the realm of
Fregean thoughts – having mental states with contents expressible by thatclauses. Intentionality in the full sense of the term is what we ascribe to systems whose practices we can only make sense of by interpreting their doings
in the light of propositional attitude ascriptions of beliefs, desires, and the
like, in other words, by taking the intentional stance. There is a peculiar kind
of necessity involved here: In order to count as genuinely intentional, it is not
enough that intentional vocabulary be sufficient to specify a being or the
practices it is involved in, for intentional vocabulary is sufficient (can be
used) to specify almost anything, including the behaviour of thermostats. It
rather seems to be the case that a being exhibits intentionality in the full
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
sense if and only if its practices are essentially and necessarily specified by intentional vocabulary.3
Pragmatism in general is the view that philosophy’s classical “What is…?”
questions should be understood as questions about what human beings do.
Therefore, pragmatism as a strategy for developing an account of intentionality transposes the question, “What is intentionality?”, into a pragmatist key
and asks, “What is it that beings we treat as having intentionality are capable of doing that makes us treat them that way?” The core answer of the
pragmatist tradition to this question has always been that the practices on
the basis of which we credit some beings with having intentionality are discursive, i.e. linguistic practices. Having language, according to this tradition,
is constitutive of having thought, while having language itself, in turn, is to
be understood as being capable of taking part in practices involving the use
of signs. Contents (meanings) are entirely conferred on signs by their suitably
being caught up in practices of producing, using, and exchanging them. Contents (meanings) are theoretical entities postulated and ascribed by us in order to make these practices intelligible, thereby interpreting performances
within them as meaningful acts of saying and thinking.
A normative pragmatist account of intentionality involves the view that
the best and maybe the only vocabulary suited for developing an intelligible
account of intentionality is normative vocabulary. According to an influential
strand of twentieth century semantics, having meaning is, as Paul Boghossian puts it, “essentially a matter of possessing a correctness condition”4,
while having genuine intentionality is essentially a matter of being able to
normatively assess correctness conditions or, to use the well-known phrase
taken from the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the spiritus rector of that
view, to follow rules.5 As John McDowell writes, the idea is that understanding the meaning of a word is to acquire something that “obliges us subsequently – if we have occasion to deploy the concept in question – to judge
and speak in certain determinate ways, on pain of failure to obey the dictates
of the meaning we have grasped”.6
Thus, the task for the normative pragmatist account is to say, by specifying necessary and sufficient conditions in normative terms, how a set of pracSee Brandom 2008, p. 183. This would not have to be taken to mean that it would be
impossible to specify a genuinely intentional practice in non-intentional ways, only that
the non-intentional ways of specifying it would be conceptually dependent on the intentional one.
4 Boghossian 2002, p. 149.
5 I will use the terms “norm” and “rule” interchangeably in this paper.
6 McDowell 1998, p. 221.
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tices must be structured in order to confer propositional and other conceptual
contents on the signs and performances that play appropriate roles in those
practices. The account thus has to specify what a being must be able to do in
order to count as speaking a language, to make intentional vocabulary applicable to her and her doings.7
1.2. Genuine Normativity
What are the essential features of intentionality which a pragmatist account
must make intelligible as being conferred on beings, their states and expressions, by nothing but their being caught up in practices of a suitable kind? It
seems to me to be in line with Brandom’s thinking to say that there are at
least three such features:
(a) Rationality: Philosophers like Dennett and Davidson have stressed that
to ascribe intentional states to a system is to make sense of it in the light of
the constitutive ideal of rationality. To explain and predict a system’s behaviour in terms of propositionally contentful intentional ascriptions is to rationalise its behaviour by ascribing states to it that would count as reasons for the
system to behave in the way it does. I will speak of this rationalising explanation as intentional interpretation. The conceptual connection between intentionality and rationality is so close that intentional states are to be individuated by their rational relations to other intentional states. What constitutes the identity of a contentful state or expression, Wilfrid Sellars argued,
is not its causal position in the natural world, but its inferential position in a
rationally connected web of contentful states. A systematic theory of propositional content based on this thought can be called inferential semantics.
Its founding stone is the idea that to be propositionally contentful is to be
caught up in inferences. Inferential practices form a necessary subset of any
discursive practice. Thus it is a condition of adequacy on a normativepragmatist account of intentionality that it can specify what kind of a doing
inferring is, and what a practice must be like in order to establish inferential
relations between the performances it consists of.
(b) Objectivity: Propositional content can be characterised in terms of truth
conditions, and even if a pragmatist semantics does not use the notion of
truth as its starting point, in the end it has to arrive at the point of being able
MIE, p. 159.
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
to explain what it is that makes propositional contents represent states of
affairs. This amounts to the same thing as being able to explain the representational character of propositional content. What is propositionally contentful necessarily has a representational aspect, it represents things as being a
certain way. Nothing that does not display that aspect would be recognizable
as expressing a proposition. Meanings are a special kind of norm which, according to a normative pragmatics, is therefore different from any other kind
of norm instituted in practice. Anybody practitioner as well as the entire
community together can be wrong about what the relevant norm really demands. There are other types of norms instituted in practices, which reach no
further than the consensus of the practitioners: If everybody agrees what a certain norm demands, then that’s what it demands. (Think of the proprieties of
greeting or of folk dancing or playing football.) But representational contents, and hence the norms that a normative pragmatics presents as theoretical substitutes for them, are objective. They outrun each and all the actual attitudes that practitioners take towards them. All the people all of the time
may have agreed that some claim is true – and it may still turn out to have
been wrong all the time.8 Thus it is a condition of adequacy on a normativepragmatist account of intentionality that it can specify what it means for a
normative practice to institute norms that are taken to be objectively true or
(c) Self-consciousness: Having meaning may be a matter of having correctness conditions, but having meaning is not the same thing as being
minded. One may be tempted to say that a minded being is one whose doings
are subject to – are assessable in the light of – norms. That is, a minded being
would be one whose actions can be interpreted as displaying meaning. But
that is not enough. Being minded demands not only displaying, but understanding meaningfulness. Not every understandable behaviour is understanding behaviour. The signs displayed in a book or produced on the screen of a
computerised informational system are assessable in the light of norms and
hence display contents, but not for the system displaying them. Intentionality in the full sense of the term however requires the capacity of ascribing intentional states to oneself, of being self-conscious in that sense. In other
words, the rationality and objectivity of the contents that are exhibited in
the practices of some sorts of beings must not exist only in the eye of the beholder. They must exist for the beings engaging in those practices themselves.9 Borrowing John Haugeland’s terms, we can speak of genuine (as op8
See MIE, p. 626.
See MIE, 630.
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posed to derived) intentionality.10 Thus it is a condition of adequacy on a
normative-pragmatist account of intentionality that it can specify what it
means for a being not only to be subject to, but to hold itself responsible to
and thus follow norms.
It seems evident to me that all the mentioned features of intentionality
are necessarily interconnected. If a practice can be understood as displaying
one of the three features, it will necessarily display all the others too.11 I will
henceforth say that a normative pragmatist account of a practice suffices to
make the practice intelligible as being discursive if and only if it suffices to
make the practice intelligible as instituting genuine normativity – by which I
mean instituting norms that form a rationally connected whole, which the
practitioners grasp and follow, and which are objective in the sense that everybody can be wrong about what they really demand. If and only if this is
the case does the account meet what Boghossian calls “the normativity constraint”.12
1.3. Expressive Bootstrapping
If we think of the project of giving a normative pragmatist account of intentionality in this way, it becomes evident that the normative vocabulary used
in the account has to be conceptually independent from the vocabulary of intentionality and semantics.13 In other words, if giving an account of linguistic
practices is supposed to make intelligible what it means to ascribe having
language and intentionality to a being engaging in those practices, the vocabulary used to specify the practices must not, on pain of circularity, make
use of intentional or semantic locutions. For example, it would reduce the
account to triviality if it proposed to specify certain performances within the
practices as acts of expressing thoughts, or as acts of saying that p. For the
question is precisely, what does it mean for a practitioner to have, and therefore what does it mean for any of his performances to be expressive of, a
See Haugeland 1998a, 303.
Donald Davidson has argued this point again and again. Being an interpreter of others
(assessing their performances in the light of the constitutive ideal of rationality), being a
self-conscious thinker and agent, and grasping objective truth-conditions, necessarily go
together. You can’t have either one without the other two. The reasons Davidson summons for this thesis are complex, and I don’t have the space to elaborate them here. See
Davidson 2001.
12 Boghossian 2002, p. 148.
13 See MIE, pp. xv, xviii.
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
It is important to see that the project to develop such an account does not
amount to a reduction of semantic or intentional to normative-pragmatist
vocabulary. A reductionist account would involve the claim that everything
that can be said by means of intentional vocabulary can equally be said by
means of a suitably constructed non-intentional normative-pragmatist
vocabulary, implying that everything that can be done by using the first can
also be done by using the second. Indeed the project of Making It Explicit
has been understood in this way, and Brandom is not entirely exempt from
blame for it. As philosophers like Donald Davidson and John McDowell have
strongly urged, there are good reasons to be suspicious of such a reductionist
programme and to assume that intentional vocabulary is in fact sui generis
and the contents expressed by it are irreducible. However, Brandom’s project
can be understood in a much more modest and therefore more charitable
way. This methodological clarification can helpfully be made in the terms of
Brandom’s latest work, Between Saying and Doing: His aim is not to be able
to say in non-intentional terms what can be said using intentional vocabulary,
but rather to be able to say in non-intentional terms what counts as using
intentional vocabulary. Consider the analogy that to say what counts as
playing tennis (saying what counts as making a proper serve, as winning a
set, and so on) does not in itself amount to actually playing tennis. The
project of Making It Explicit is to construct a universal pragmatist
metavocabulary, i.e. a pragmatist metavocabulary for any discursive
practice whatsoever. This means that in this metavocabulary one must be
able to specify, i.e. to say what counts as engaging in, a practice; a practice
that is sufficient in itself to deploy another vocabulary, i.e. engaging in which
counts as saying something: “Being a pragmatic metavocabulary (…) is a
pragmatically mediated semantic relation between vocabularies. It is
pragmatically mediated by the practices-or-abilities that are specified by one
of the vocabularies (which say what counts as doing that) and that deploy or
are the use of the other vocabulary (what one says by doing that).”14
Brandom argues that the semantic relation that is established thereby
between two vocabularies is of a distinctive sort, quite different from
reducibility or translatability. For it is possible that the metavocabulary that
allows one to say what counts as using the target vocabulary, can be strictly
expressively weaker than the target vocabulary, which means that things
that can be said using the target vocabulary cannot be said in – translated
into – the metavocabulary. This is what Brandom calls “expressive
Brandom 2008, p. 11.
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bootstrapping”.15 Thus the insight that intentional and semantic vocabulary
expresses irreducible contents can be respected. It can be granted that what
can be said in these vocabularies cannot be said in any other vocabulary that
does not conceptually presuppose them. We can take the following
characterisation from Between Saying and Doing to be the correct
specification of the project of Making It Explicit, and take it to be
“specifying in a non-intentional, non-semantic vocabulary what it is one
must do in order to count as deploying some vocabulary to say something,
hence as making intentional and semantic vocabulary applicable to the
performances one produces (a kind of pragmatic expressive bootstrapping)”.16
Specifying performances in a target discursive practice in this way does not
imply that what one says in the metavocabulary expresses the sense the
target performances express (what one can say by using them), that they
mean the same thing, but only that the pragmatically defined types of doings
specified in the metavocabulary are necessarily extensionally equivalent with
semantically defined types of sayings in the target vocabulary.17 Thus one
would have to show that having such-and-such a pragmatically specified
structure is sufficient for any practice to count as discursive, and, conversely,
that any discursive practice must have a structure of just this kind. Having
such a metavocabulary for discursive practice as such would put an observer
who analyses a suitably structured practice from afar – “from sideways on”,18
as John McDowell likes to say – in a position to say that the practice in
question suffices to institute propositional contents and hence to count as
being discursive, without thereby being in a position to say what is being said
by the practitioners, that is, to understand and translate and their sayings
into the metavocabulary.19
Brandom 2008, p. 11.
Brandom 2008, pp. 78 f.; compare also Brandom 2005, p. 227.
17 Peter Grönert has argued the point in Grönert 2006, Chapters 1 and 2.
18 McDowell 1996, p. 34.
19 Consider the analogy that a hypothetical future neurophysiology, which would give us a
clear idea of what a structural or material description of brain states implementing consciousness should look like, could put us in a position to know with certainty, on the basis
of data observed from a third-person perspective, that a creature under observation is in
pain (because its brain is in the relevant state), without thereby being in a position to
know what it feels like for that creature to experience the pain.
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
2. The Architectonic of Making It Explicit
2.1. Normative Phenomenalism
In the first part of my paper, I have tried to lay out what I take to be the
claim of the normative-pragmatist project, its explanans, its method, and the
criterion of adequacy it would have to meet. In the second part, I will turn to
Making It Explicit in order to critically assess Brandom’s attempt to work
out the project. I will start by introducing Brandom’s general conceptual
framework for a pragmatist account of intentionality: a three-layered phenomenalist account of normativity.
Phenomenalism can be defined as a kind of supervenience thesis, the general recipe of which states that “the facts of what things are Ks, for a specified sortal K, supervene on the facts about what things are taken to be Ks.”20
At the first level of his phenomenalist account of norms, Brandom introduces
two types of so-called normative statuses, namely commitments (to do certain
things) and entitlements (to do certain things). The concepts of commitment
and entitlement are loosely modelled on the more traditional normative concepts of obligation and permission.21 Taking the practice of playing games according to certain rules (norms) as a model of linguistic practices, we may say
that the normative statuses a practitioner has earned are what commit her to
certain moves within the game and entitle her to other such moves. Normative statuses are supposed to serve as the normative-pragmatist substitutes
for the traditional notion of intentional states.22
But where do these normative statuses come from? In answering this
question, the second layer of the phenomenalist account comes into play,
which introduces normative attitudes, of which again there are two: undertakings and attributions. Undertakings and attributions are doings, moves within
a normative practice. Attributing a commitment or entitlement to someone is
taking or treating her as having that normative status. Undertaking a commitment is licensing others to attribute that commitment to oneself. Normative statuses are to be explained as being instituted by normative attitudes,
that is, by the practices of taking or treating practitioners as committed or
entitled to certain moves within the game. We may refer to this important
thesis of Brandom’s as the institution thesis. It is recognizably an instantiation of the pragmatist strategy: Norms and normative statuses are not obMIE, p. 292.
See MIE, p. 160.
22 See MIE, p. xvii.
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jects in the causal order, but they “are domesticated by being understood in
terms of normative attitudes, which are in the causal order”.23
But now, what does it mean to have normative attitudes, to take or treat
someone as committed or entitled in practice? At this point, the third layer of
Brandom’s phenomenalist account is invoked, which brings sanctioning into
the picture. Attributing a commitment to a practitioner means being disposed to sanction her if she does not behave in the ways she is taken to be
committed to. Acknowledging a commitment comes down to entitling other
practitioners to sanction oneself if one does not behave in the ways one ought
to behave in the light of what one has committed oneself to. The sanctioning
behaviour itself is to be understood in terms of positive or negative reinforcement, where negatively enforcing a performance is reacting to it in such
a way as to make it less likely in the future that this performance will be elicited under the relevant circumstances, while positively enforcing it is to make
this more likely.24 Explaining sanctioning in this very broad sense by employing the learning-theoretic notion of behavioural reinforcement is important in
order to counter the objection that our everyday concept of sanctioning presupposes the concept of norms and therefore cannot serve to explain their institution.25 But sanctioning dispositions in the learning-theoretic sense are
nothing but reliable responsive discriminational capabilities of responding in
different ways to different stimuli, hence entirely specifiable in a naturalist
vocabulary. Brandom calls this a “retributive approach to the normative”26.
We might speak of the retribution thesis and follow Sebastian Rödl in saying
that for Brandom, normativity is to be explained by appealing to retributive
disposition plus social institution.27
2.2. Conformism
On the basis of the terminology thus introduced, Brandom in Part I of Making It Explicit offers a model of normative practice that was originally elaborated by John Haugeland but goes back to Sellars’s classical work “Some ReMIE, p. 626.
See MIE, p. 35.
25 See, e.g., Rosen 1997, p. 169 f.; Rödl 2000, p. 770 ff.
26 Brandom’s officical position is that the third layer of the phenomenalist approach, defining normative attitudes in learning-theoretic terms, is optional, and its endorsement is
not part of the project of MIE. It is, however, highly important to note that, according to
Brandom, adding the third layer to the account is definitely possible (see MIE, p. 42;
compare also MIE, p. 165 f.).
27 See Rödl 2000, p. 770.
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
flections on Language-Games”.28 There, Sellars discusses the problematic of
how one could make a practice intelligible as being normative and the practitioners’ behaviour as being guided by norms, without specifically describing
the practitioners as intentionally grasping and obeying norms, thereby begging the question as to what it means that they are capable of doing just
that. A good way of thinking about what the account has to achieve is to
think of it in terms of Davidson’s scenario of radical interpretation: We observe, from afar as it were, a community of more or less alien practitioners,
engaged in a complex set of practices. What kind of a structure must this set
of practices have in order to legitimately count as being a case of language
use? In other words, “what one must interpret a community as doing in order
for it to be talking that one is thereby taking them to be doing”?29
The key, according to Sellars, is to understand their doings as “patterngoverned behaviour”.30 Pattern-governed practices institute regularities in
behaviour which then serve as normalising standards for subsequent performances within the practice, which again reinforce the regularities. Thus,
within such a practice, the regularities are what they are because the performances are the way they are, but the reverse is also true: the performances
are the way they are because of the regularities being what they are. Such a
practice is self-steering in that it at once institutes, follows, and maintains the
regularities that govern it, even though none of the practitioners have to be
credited with intentionality in order for this process to be intelligible.
Haugeland has turned this Sellarsian idea into a neat thought experiment
that fits well into the radical interpretation scenario. Imagine a prelinguistic, non-intentional community of hominids which we will call the conformists.31 These are characterised by having two fundamental second-order
dispositions: First, a conformist has an innate disposition to imitate behaviour of other members of its kind (“imitativeness”). Secondly, a conformist
has another disposition called “censoriousness” which leads it to influence the
behavioural dispositions of its peers by encouraging imitativeness in others
and suppressing variations in their behaviour via simple conditioning mechanisms. Such a practice does not presuppose thought, language, or rationality
on the part of the practitioners. Nevertheless, the conformist practice is selfsteering in the way sketched above: Any community of conformists will, in
the long run, and as the result of nothing but the wired-in dispositions of its
members, tend to institute uniformities of behaviour among its members.
See Haugeland 1998 b, p. 167, Fn. 25.
MIE, p. 637.
30 See Sellars 1991, pp. 324-327.
31 See Haugeland 1998 b, pp. 147-152.
David Lauer
These uniformities, whatever they are, are nothing but the result of the performances of the community members. However, once the uniformities are
instituted, they write back into the practice, that is, they are causally efficacious for their own reproduction. For future behaviour (behaviour of just the
kind which instituted the uniformities in the first place) will now be positively or negatively reinforced because the uniformities are what they are.
One could call this process normalisation, and the uniformities established
and maintained that way could quite straightforwardly be called norms.
Let us grant that this is an intelligible model of a community with a normative practice, but no concepts.32 However, it is obvious that the conformist practice, as far as it has been described, cannot be understood as instituting genuine normativity and therefore not as a specifically discursive practice.
In fact, what has been elaborated so far does not provide the conceptual resources needed to distinguish the discursive practices of rational animals from
the behaviour of a flock of hens maintaining their pecking order. The easiest
way to prove the point is to show that the norms instituted by the conformists’ practices are not objective – they are whatever the conformist community takes them to be. The sheer question whether the conformists might be
wrong about a norm they all “agree” on by maintaining it does not make
sense. For the conformist account explains normative statuses in terms of
normative attitudes, and normative attitudes in terms of dispositions to behave in regular ways. Thus everything that can be said about normative
statuses in a conformist practice, according to this specification, can be said
by talking only about constellations of behavioural regularities. It thus seems
obvious that the normative statuses ascribed to this kind of practice cannot
be understood to outrun the actual normative attitudes of the practitioners.
Therefore, conformism cannot account for the institution of normative
statuses with propositional contents because these require objectivity – the
possibility of making a difference between what is right and what everybody
takes to be right –, and within a conformist practice there is no room for this
Maybe it isn’t even that. It might be objected that it is questionable whether the conformist view should even count as a normative account at all, since it identifies the distinction between right and wrong performances with the distinction between performances
that occur regularly and those that do not. It thus reduces the basic normative distinction
between what is right and what is wrong to do to a purely descriptive distinction between
what usually does and what usually does not happen. Thus one could argue that it is not
even fine-grained enough to establish any principled difference between forms of normative
regulation of behaviour on the one hand and purely natural regularities occurring in animate or inanimate nature on the other hand.
33 Brandom is well aware of this: See MIE, p. 36.
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
2.3. Scorekeeping
So how can there be normative statuses instituted by nothing but normative
attitudes in a social practice, but nevertheless instituted in such a way that
the question what these statuses are is neither settled by referring to the factual normative attitudes of any one practitioner nor to the totality of factual
attitudes of the whole community, but only by referring to what it means to
be correctly attributed that status? Brandom’s decisive move at this point is
to introduce the idea of a scorekeeping practice. The decisive difference between a scorekeeping practice and a conformist one is that the first one, but
not the latter one, is governed by internal, not external sanctions. This means
that within a scorekeeping practice, the normative statuses and attitudes
governing the practice form a structure of mutual relations, a system of interdependencies. There is no a priori boundary to the complexity such a system of interconnected normative statuses could have. Thus we would have a
system of normative statuses completely internally individuated in terms of
their relations to each other. Such a system would be holistic in that the identity of any status defined within it would depend on nothing but its relations
to other statuses. In a practice governed by such a system of normative
statuses, the members’ treating some behaviour as being inappropriate in the
light of a normative status the practitioner has inherited, would not consist
in sanctioning her by external punishment, but just by keeping track of consequential changes made concerning other, interconnected different statuses
that are also ascribed to the respective practitioner (or even to others, like
her family). This is internal sanctioning. Many game-playing activities can be
understood as practices establishing such a system: Within such a game,
playing a card, making a move with a stone on a board or uttering a noise of
a certain type, can all have consequences only upon what other moves within
the game are appropriate or not for the player when it’s his turn again. In
such a practice, it’s “norms all the way down”.34 This practice could be followed without any external sanctioning in place, just for fun, so to speak.
One could refuse to follow the rules, but only on pain of giving up the game.
This idea of a system of relationally interconnected normative statuses is
the core of Brandom’s normative pragmatics as developed in Part I of Making It Explicit, and Brandom claims (sensibly, to my mind) that it is this
move which makes the normative character of his theoretical vocabulary ir-
MIE, p. 44; see also MIE, p. 625.
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reducible.35 His notion of a holistic system of internally related normative
statuses instituted by nothing but practices of normative attitudinising is
also meant to provide the foundation for the pragmatist project of “grounding an inferential semantics on a normative pragmatics”,36 by offering a
pragmatist account of what it means to stand in inferential relations, and
therefore of what kind of a doing inferring is.
However, even if we accept that such a holistic system of internally related normative statuses is a necessary feature of any practice that can be understood as linguistic, it is clear that this idea as such is not sufficient to explain how such statuses could be understood as carrying propositional content. In fact, the game analogy makes this perfectly clear: The moves in a
game of chess or football are entirely internally constituted, they involve
commitment-preserving, entitlement-preserving and incompatibility relations between players’ normative statuses, but they are not assertions with
propositional contents. They are correctly or incorrectly executed, but neither true nor false. A scorekeeping practice, in other words, is not necessarily
a discursive practice. What Brandom describes in Chapters 1 to 3 of his book
are various relations between normative statuses implicitly defined in a system of such statuses. The practice of navigating these relations by keeping
score of the changes that attributing or committing oneself to one of the
statuses has for the set of collateral statuses one must also commit oneself to
or attribute to others can be called “scorekeeping”. But scorekeeping in this
sense means no more than keeping track of the kinetics of normative statuses
in a practice of moves that systematically change the statuses of those involved in the practice. This kind of scorekeeping is involved in a game of
chess or solitaire no less than in asserting or arguing. In order to be entitled
to say that this kind of scorekeeping amounts to uttering and understanding
speech acts, it would have to be intelligible as discursive scorekeeping or reasoning. But in order to show that the normative statuses being tracked in the
practice are propositionally contentful, that is to say, representational, it
would have to be shown, by Brandom’s own lights, that the normative
statuses instituted in the practice can be understood as being objective. And
this has not been shown.
The picture is not altered if we include Chapter 4, the closing chapter of
Part I of Making It Explicit, into our considerations. Here we are shown how
the moves in the game can be causally connected to events in the natural environment of the players, so that the game is embedded in perception and
See, e.g., Brandom 2005, p. 224.
MIE, p. 132.
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
action, or rather, sensual stimulation and bodily comportment. Indeed we
should accept this as another necessary condition for any practice in order to
qualify as (empirically) discursive.37 Surely the representational dimension of
propositional content demands some kind of connection between moves in
the practice and the world, so there should be language-entry- and languageexit-transitions. What we get is a kind of game that includes, unlike chess,
but rather like football, minigolf and scouting games, things and events in
the environment of the players as relevant factors for their moves.38 The
world, not the chessboard, becomes their playground. Indeed there are many
such games and the language game must be one of their kind. But it is precisely this fact that makes it perfectly clear that anchoring the game practice
in the world is necessary, but surely not sufficient in order to make a practice
discursive. Passing the ball on to a running teammate in a football match is
making a move in such a game, but it does not amount to saying something.
2.4. Readjusting the Structure
The critical remarks made at the end of the foregoing section may seem trivial. However, it has to be pointed out that they squarely contradict much of
Brandom himself has to say about what he is doing in Making It Explicit.
More than once does he explicitly claim that the chapters making up the Part
I of his book (introducing what he calls the “core theory”)39 provide sufficient
theoretical material to explain the conferral of propositional content on normative statuses instituted in a scorekeeping practice.40 He presents the basic
notions of commitment and entitlement as theoretical replacements of beliefs
and justifications and assumes the game in which such commitments and entitlements are instituted to be the game of giving and asking for reasons right
from the start. According to the view presented here, he is simply not entitled
to this kind of talk. The kind of activity Brandom describes in Part I of Making It Explicit is indeed a game, but the moves in it are nothing but pragmatically specified generic performances, and to call this practice a game of
giving and asking for reasons is a petitio principii. On the most charitable
reading, one would have to say that when Brandom does call it so, this must
be seen as a huge promissory note that will only be redeemed when it has
I leave aside the question whether a strictly non-empirical autonomous discursive practice is a conceptual possibility.
38 John McDowell has argued this point forcefully in McDowell 2005, p. 127.
39 MIE, p. xxii.
40 See for example MIE, pp. xv, 45, 136, 159, 607. See also Brandom 2005, p. 237, for a
very recent statement to the same effect.
David Lauer
been made intelligible how normative statuses can be objective. Until then,
the scorekeeping practice can only provisionally be called a model of discursive scorekeeping, instituting propositional and conceptual content.
I suggest that, for the sake of charity, this is the best way to read Part I of
Making It Explicit, despite Brandom’s official claims to the contrary. If this
reading is accepted, however, it follows that Part II of the book too must be
read in an entirely different light than the one that falls on it from Brandom’s own blinking advertising signs. For Brandom’s own account of what
he is doing in the chapters comprising Part II crucially depends on the assumption that the scorekeeping performances introduced in Part I could legitimately be understood as speech acts, as assertions with propositional contents. He presents the chapters of Part II as developing normativepragmatist substitutes for notions like truth, aboutness, singular terms,
predicates, indexicals, saying, and believing, instead of presenting them as
what they strictly speaking are, terms for “constellations of tokenings, structured by the commitments (inferential, substitutional, and anaphoric) that
link those tokenings”, terms that “bear a certain resemblance to classical notions of sentence and term”.41 Brandom tends to make it appear that, since
the normative statuses introduced in the first part of the book could be understood as propositionally contentful thoughts, it would therefore be legitimate to regard the subsentential entities extracted from them as singular
terms and predicates. But in fact, as we saw, this is not quite how things
stand at this point. Rather, at this point, it remains to be seen whether the
practices in question can be understood as being discursive at all. And in fact
only a positive answer to the question whether it would be feasible at all to
impose on the practices a description like the one developed in Chapters 5 to
8 of Making It Explicit, specifying in pragmatist terms the structures of subsentential – I should rather say: sub-move-in-the-game – performance types,
could provide a reason for regarding the practices in question as discursive
practices in the first place. Thus, the entitlement to call the sub-move-in-thegame performance types utterings of singular terms or predicates cannot be
derived from an anterior and independently established entitlement to call the
full move-in-the-game performance types makings of assertions. Rather,
these two entitlements could only be earned together, mutually conditioning
each other. I therefore suggest that the best way to understand the relevant
chapters of Part II of Making It Explicit is to regard them as specifying further necessary conditions that any practice would have to satisfy in order to
count as discursive.
MIE, p. 539.
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
2.5. Elaborated Scorekeeping
So let us return to our question: How can there be normative statuses instituted by nothing but normative attitudes in a social practice, but nevertheless instituted in such a way that the question what these statuses are is neither settled by referring to the actual normative attitudes of any one practitioner nor to the totality of actual attitudes of the whole community? What
has to be introduced into the account of the practice in order for it be intelligible to generate objective normative statuses? If we read Part II of Making
It Explicit in the charitable way which I suggested in the foregoing section,
the answer suggested by Brandom seems to be that the scorekeeping practice
has to be elaborated. Thus, on the one hand, the job of Chapters 6 and 7 of the
book would be to show how a basic scorekeeping practice can be refined so as
to allow for the decomposition of the original performances constituting the
game into various component performances, and by what scorekeeping rules
each of these subordinated component performances would have to be governed in order to be useful for composing new, correct but unforeseen moves
in the game, and so count as singular terms and predicates. On the other
hand, the job of Chapters 5 and 8 would be to show how the introduction of
second-order performances into the scorekeeping practice could be achieved,
performances which would count – taking the ground-level practice as already being discursive – as deploying and introducing into the language logical, semantical, intentional and other second-order locutions.
Let us grant that the elaborate structures specified in Part II of Making It
Explicit are necessary conditions on practice in order to qualify as discursive.
But are they jointly sufficient for a practice to institute objective norms and
confer genuine intentionality on its practitioners? Brandom’s official position
is that, yes, they are. For with all the technical raw materials introduced in
these chapters, combining the notions of substitutional commitments, anaphoric commitments, and de re and de dicto attributions of commitments,
Brandom thinks he can show how a practice must be structured in order to
license understanding the performances of its practitioners as expressing contents that are objectively true or false for the scorekeepers. There is no space
here to review the details of this breathtaking manoeuvre.42 In a nutshell,
See MIE, pp. 495-520 and 584-608. The best account of the story that I am aware of is
Loeffler 2005.
David Lauer
Brandom proposes to reconstruct the objectivity of discursive commitments
out of two basic features of any scorekeeping practice, first its holism, second
its perspectivity or social articulation. The first feature can be derived from
the fact that in a scorekeeping practice, normative statuses are holistically
defined in terms of each other. The identity of a normative status is constituted by a set of collateral statuses: those to which one consequentially commits oneself by attaining the status in question and those from which that
status itself can be consequentially derived – in other words, the statuses that
follow from it and from which it can be followed. But that means that making a change anywhere in a holistically structured system or set of normative
statuses – e.g., replacing one commitment with another – alters the entire
system and so the identity of every status within the system. The second feature is a simple corollary from the very idea that in a scorekeeping practice,
every player is also a scorekeeper who keeps the score of the game on everybody else. There is in general no umpire who has the authority to decide what
the real score of the game is – who is committed to what. Rather, a good deal
of the game consists in the players’ comparing and negotiating their respective score tables, trying to straighten out differences, and doing so is, ipso
facto, a continuation of the game itself. In such a practice, mastering the
game – understanding what the performances of one’s fellow players mean,
and what they have committed themselves to by producing them – becomes
a matter of navigating the different scorekeeping perspectives. For in order to
assess the normative consequences of some practitioner Z acknowledging a
commitment p, a scorekeeper Y has no other option to calculate these consequences than by embedding p into her own set of collateral commitments.
She might thereby reach the conclusion that she is henceforth entitled to
treat Z also as committed to q, as – from her perspective, within her holistic
set of commitments – q follows from p. But Z himself might not acknowledge
any commitment to q, because his own acknowledged collateral commitments include a commitment to non-q, and he does not acknowledge any
connection between these commitments such that commitment to one of
them would preclude entitlement to the other. Now, in order to make sense of
Z’s performance as a player – which is, after all, the point of scorekeeping – Y
somehow has to keep a double set of books for Z. For she has to attribute to Z
a commitment to non-q. After all, this is a commitment Z acknowledges,
which is a move in the game. But on the other hand, she must also – if she is
in the business of calculating significances, of making sense of Z’s performances at all – attribute to Z a commitment to q, for this is, among a host of
other holistic consequential relations, what constitutes the very identity –
the content – of Z’s status p in the first place. Seen from Y’s perspective, q is
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
what Z is in fact committed to because of his acknowledging p, whether he
acknowledges this consequential commitment or not.
Now, attributing a commitment to q as well as to non-q might look either
like an irrational attitude of the scorekeeper or like an attribution of irrationality to the player, but in fact it is neither. What is required is rather that
one take into account the perspectivity of the game and accordingly distinguishing two kinds of attributions of commitments: The first, which Brandom calls de dicto attribution, is the attitude of attributing commitments to a
player as acknowledged by that very player, attributing commitments as seen
from that player’s perspective, so to speak. The second, called de re attribution, is the attitude of attributing commitments to a player as consequentially
undertaken by him, whether acknowledged or not, as seen from the perspective of the scorekeeper – calculated on the basis of her set of collateral commitments. Both ways of keeping the score are essential for mastering the
game, for if one does not attribute commitments de re style, one cannot assess
the very identity, the normative significance, of moves in the game at all;
and if one does not attribute commitments de dicto style, one cannot calculate
what another player is actually likely to do next. But the difference between
these two kinds of attribution is, Brandom suggests, in fact identical with the
difference between what a player acknowledges, that is, what she takes herself
to be committed to (according to the score that she keeps on herself), and
what, from the perspective of another scorekeeper, she should acknowledge,
that is, what she really is committed to. In a practice with such a structure,
scorekeepers, if they want to master the game at all, have to treat normative
statuses as outrunning, i.e. as having more and different normative consequences, than anybody who has these statuses – including the scorekeeper
herself – is prepared to acknowledge. Thus, the objectivity of normative
statuses – commitments – in such a practice is instituted by the practitioners
necessarily treating each other in the practice as being bound by such
statuses. From every scorekeeper’s perspective, anyone and everyone can be
wrong about what the rules they follow actually demand – that means: what
someone committing himself to a certain norm is really committed to,
whether he knows it or not.43 Objectivity, as Brandom claims, “appears as a
feature of the structure of discursive intersubjectivity. (…) What is shared by
all discursive perspectives is that there is a difference between what is objectively correct in the way of concept application and what is merely taken to
be so, not what it is – the structure, not the content.”44 Objectivity is not a
MIE, p. 636.
MIE, p. 599.
David Lauer
property of an especially dignified class of contents which are, so to speak,
really (eternally) true as seen from a God’s Eye point of view. Brandom’s position is that there are no such contents, and there is no such point of view. Objectivity, rather than being something non-perspectival, is precisely a function of the irreducible interplay of perspectives that necessarily makes up the
structure of any set of social practices which suffices to institute any semantic contents at all.
3. Whose Rules? Which Normativity?
3.1. Has the Objectivity Constraint Been Met?
After having reviewed the entire arc of thought spanning Chapters 1 to 8 of
Making It Explicit, what are we – finally – to make of the book’s master
claim? What we have now in the thought experiment is a theoretician who
observes the practice of a community of beings “from sideways on” (that is,
without taking for granted that the beings she observes can be credited with
genuine intentionality). She uses the normative-pragmatist metalanguage of
Making It Explicit to specify their practice, describing them as being committed and entitled to certain moves, as undertaking and attributing commitments and entitlements within a game. There is a fine-structure instituted
in the game that allows for the composition of “new” moves in the game by
assembling suited sub-component moves. The observer also identifies certain
moves, which while being moves of utterers in the practice, also seem to serve
to take up other practitioners’ moves and attribute these to them in a new
form (so that the utterer explores the consequences of what he takes the
original move to have been).
Now let us ask, for the last time: Would the fine-grained pragmatic substructures specified in Chapters 5 to 8 of Making It Explicit, taken as necessary features of discursive practice, be jointly sufficient for a practice to institute genuine normativity, hence to count as a language game and to confer
genuine intentionality on its practitioners and propositional contents on their
performances? Would a description like this, couched in non-intentional
normative-pragmatist terms, suffice to reveal that the practice is discursive?
Would it suffice to put the observer in a position to say that what is going on
over there is talking – a discursive practice – even though she is as yet in no
position to understand or translate what is being said? In other words, would
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
a description like this achieve expressive bootstrapping? The answer to this
question is anything but easy.
For a start, one could obviously argue that the answer has to be positive.
For if – as has been granted for the sake of argument – a specification of the
practice on the lines rehearsed here could be elaborated, it would suffice to
show that making a difference between what someone is ready to acknowledge being committed to (from his own perspective) and what he really is
committed to (from the attributor’s perspective), is, from the perspective of
the practitioners, built into the formal structure of the very process of keeping score in such a practice. Thus, for the practitioners, such a practice institutes a sense of correctness which implies that the deontic statuses practitioners acquire cannot be reduced to regularities of factual scorekeeping attitudes. But this means that, again for the practitioners, the norms they follow
are objective, because this is what they necessarily take them to be. And this
seems quite straightforwardly to satisfy the normativity constraint: Genuine
normativity is instituted in the practice for the practitioners. It would then
simply be incoherent to specify the practice in the way outlined above, yet
refrain from attributing a grasp of the difference in question to the practitioners.45 Thus it would seem incoherent to argue, as John McDowell does, that
a certain practice might have all that structure and still be “just a game, a
behavioral repertoire whose moves do not have a significance that points outside the game”.46 For, if what I have said about intentionality in section (1.2)
is correct, treating a performance as objectively correct suffices for one to
take it as being true or false, as having truth conditions, and that in turn suffices for one to take it as being propositionally contentful. It would therefore
have been shown that if the practice has a structure of the specified kind,
then it follows that the practitioners within the practice thereby treat each
other as dealing in propositional contents, as thinkers and speakers, that is,
as bearers of genuine intentionality.47 There is no room for scepticism here.
However, quite a few commentators have not been convinced by this line
of argument, and it is easy to see why. From their point of view, it may have
been shown that it appears to the scorekeepers within the practice under consideration that their norms are objective, that they take themselves to be following objective norms. But, these commentators would tend to add, from the
See Grönert 2005, pp. 166 ff. for an elaboration of this point.
McDowell 2005, p. 127.
47 This is a much stronger defence against McDowell’s objection than the one Brandom
himself musters, according to which the practice being structured in the specified way
makes it extremely likely that the practitioners treat each other as thinkers and speakers
(see Brandom 2005, p. 239).
David Lauer
point of view of the observer it is plainly visible that this is not really the case.48
For her, the normative-pragmatist specification still does not meet the objectivity constraint. Certainly, for the practitioners such a practice institutes a
sense of correctness which implies that the deontic statuses practitioners acquire cannot be reduced to regularities of factual scorekeeping attitudes. But
seen from sideways on, that is, from the point of view of the observer, these
attitudes are all there is and determine everything else. For the observer, what
looks to the scorekeepers like a difference between what a practitioner takes
himself to be committed to and what he really is committed to, reduces to a
difference in perspective between a set of normative attitudes held by one
practitioner and a different set of attitudes held by another practitioner.
Therefore, despite all the complexities of the practice in question, all the
norms instituted within it are, for the observer, still of the conformist kind. In
the metalanguage she uses, the normative statuses she ascribes are reducible
to constellations of normative attitudes (which are, it should be kept in mind,
reducible to structures of sanctioning dispositions describable in naturalist
terms, at least in principle). “Being justified”, from the perspective of the observer, means just “being taken by all the practitioners, including himself, to
be justified”. In short, “being entitled” or “being committed”, as the theoretician uses these terms, means “being entitled/committed according to what the
practitioners do”, that is, according to what they actually accept as appropriate. The status of being justified is entirely reducible to actual patterns of acts
of being taken to be justified. But then, obviously, the statuses cannot outrun
what the community takes them to be. They do not and could not extend beyond community consensus; they do not bind the practitioners objectively,
as seen from the perspective of the observer. Thus what has been accounted
for is at best the appearance, the illusion of objectivity, not the real thing.
3.2. The Importance of Going Native
The way of reasoning rehearsed at the end of the foregoing section seems
compelling. And yet there is something deeply suspicious about this kind of
move. First, consider how puzzling the apparent conclusion is that there may
be beings who coherently, consistently, and legitimately, from their point of
view, take each other and themselves to be intentional beings (that is, thinkers),
but who are, judged from the observer’s point of view, wrong to do so. This
appears to be the idea of a being that is under the illusion of being a thinker,
who takes himself to be thinking but really isn’t, and this is squarely unintel48
See, for example, Laurier 2005, pp. 155 f., Grönert 2005, p. 167, Loeffler 2005, p. 59.
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
ligible. “I think that I think, therefore I think” is an unassailable inference,
and it works in the third person, too. Secondly, it is rather disconcerting to
think about how our actual discursive practices would appear to an observer
– say, a visitor from outer space – who watches us in our everyday linguistic
dealings from sideways on, that is from the same detached observer’s position
that we took towards our fictitious community of scorekeepers. Isn’t it obvious that, details aside, our practices would appear to him exactly as theirs
would appear to us? And wouldn’t our alien visitor miss something objective
about our practices and about us if he concluded that, for all he could tell, we
might be engaged in some kind of super-complex, but ultimately meaningless
Glasperlenspiel? But what kind of a further refinement of the normativepragmatist specification of a practice, available from the observer’s perspective, could supply him with sufficient reasons to say that we really are talking?
I think it is obvious by now that no further refinement of such a specification could provide such reasons. And this should lead us – instead of continuing the search for more and more normative-pragmatist specifications – to
question the standpoint from which the very request for that “something
more” seems legitimate, indeed inevitable: the view from sideways on. We
can question it simply by asking why we should accept the idea that, if something cannot be perceived from an observer’s, but “only” from a practitioner’s point of view, it would follow that it is not really, objectively there?
Thus my claim is that the key to a dissolution of the apparent problem is
not to be found in the complexities of what an observer could report about a
practice from sideways on, but in the attitude she adopts towards the practice. We can see what “more” is missing from the account if we shift the focus
from the question of what practitioners have to do in order for their practice
to be interpretable as talking, to the question of what an observer would have
to do in order to count as interpreting them as talking. The answer, in short, is
that the observer has to go normative herself. She has to stop being an observer and start being an interpreter – and that means: being a practitioner, a
scorekeeper taking part herself in the practices she is trying to understand.
Therefore, going normative is going native.
A further claim I want to put forward is that it is precisely this solution,
or rather dissolution, of the apparent problematic in accounting for the institution of genuine normativity, that Brandom should be understood as embracing in the dark and infamous Chapter 9 of Making It Explicit. I therefore
take it that, contrary to Brandom’s own announcements, the keystone of his
enterprise of giving an expressive bootstrapping account of intentionality in
normative-pragmatist terms is not inserted into the arc of thought until the
David Lauer
very last pages of his book. I suggest that in reading Making It Explicit, we
should adhere to the things Brandom can actually be understood as saying
rather than to what he claims to be doing.
Reading Brandom in this way makes available a surprising answer to the
question where the proprieties of scorekeeping come from: It is we as interpreters who provide them. Any perspective disclosing genuine normativity is
itself a constitutively normative perspective. We must normatively assess
normative assessments. In order to specify which moves in the practice are
objectively correct (and thereby to specify what a practitioner is committed
to, what he can be taken as saying), we as interpreters cannot just specify
which moves the practitioners take to be correct, we have to specify which
moves are correctly taken to be correct, are to be taken to be correct – i.e.,
which moves are correct. Which means that we must normatively assess (not
just report, or register) the performances under consideration as to their correctness.49 This makes the attitude of taking someone as a speaker, an intentional being, a normative and evaluative rather than a descriptive enterprise.
Brandom clearly states that the interpreter has to use “the norms implicit in
his or her own concepts in specifying how the conceptual norms that bind the
community being interpreted extend beyond the practitioners’ actual capacity to apply them correctly”.50 This, Brandom declares, makes the phenomenalist account of normativity an instance of “normative phenomenalism”.51
From the moment that she goes normative, a gestalt-switch will occur and the
observer-turned-interpreter will be in touch with objective norms, just as the
players she observed were all the time. For then, what has been said about
the elaborated scorekeeping practice goes for the interpreter too: In order to
understand the moves in the game at all, she has to treat the players including herself as bound by norms whose normative force goes beyond the sum
total of the players’ actual attitudes towards them, even though, seen “from
sideways on”, these attitudes are all there is. This is summed up in the following statement: “[W]hat from the point of view of a scorekeeper is objectively
correct (…) can be understood by us (…) entirely in terms of the immediate
attitudes, the acknowledgments and attributions, of the scorekeeper. (…) In
this way the maintenance, from every perspective, of a distinction between
See MIE, p. 626 f.
MIE, p. 633. See also MIE, p. 638, and Brandom 2005, pp. 238 f. Grönert 2005, p. 168,
reads Chapter 9 in a similar way that has helped me a lot to get clear about my own interpretation.
51 MIE, p. 627.
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
status and attitude is reconciled with the methodological phenomenalism
that insists that all that really needs to be considered is attitudes.”52
Let me summarise: The key to seeing objective norms as such and hence
knowing what they are is exchanging the detached third-person perspective
of the observer for the engaged first-person perspective of the agent, of someone who invests her own commitments into the process of interpretation. This
may sound like a hermeneutic platitude. So it is. But I think keeping it in
mind helps us to see what is wrong with the kind of criticism voiced at the
end of section (3.1): It is asking for something that cannot be asked for. Consider the analogy with scepticism about other minds.53 The sceptic argues
that what looks like behaviour expressive of mind, of something inner, may,
for all he knows, be just plain behaviour, a pure mechanism, not expressive of
anything. He too asks to be given something more, a final proof, in order to
be convinced that he is in touch with another mind. But minds, to borrow
Stanley Cavell’s terms, cannot be known in the same way as turkeys and
trees. They have to be acknowledged.54 The same, I would say, goes for objective norms, i.e. contents or meaning.
Thus, again, it is true that one can specify the structure a practice must
exhibit in order to count as being sufficient to institute conceptual contents
in non-intentional, normative-pragmatist terms, which puts an observer in a
position to say that, for the practitioners, there are objective norms instituted
within the practice. It is also true however that doing so does not put the observer in a position to see these objective norms as such from her perspective,
in other words, to say what these objective norms are. But in fact this is not
at all problematic or even surprising. For being able to say that would
amount to the same thing as being able to say what it is that the beings under observation are saying, in other words, to translate or understand the
meanings of their words. And it was granted from the beginning that it would
be too much to ask from a normative-pragmatist bootstrapping account to
put an observer wielding it into a position to do that. It can – and in fact it
should – be granted that, seen from sideways on, a discursive practice cannot
be understood as conferring any contents in particular, since the norms constituting the contents are as such invisible from that point of view. Thus going normative – acknowledging norms – is the only way to achieve understanding of meaning, hence of knowing what norms the practitioners have
really bound themselves to. The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the
MIE, p. 597.
Brandom 2005, p. 240.
54 See Cavell 1969.
David Lauer
eating. Likewise, I suggest, the proof of intentionality is in communication – or
rather, in having the pudding, and a nice little chat, with the natives.
3.3. Neither Circularity Nor Reduction
There are two predominant critical assessments of Brandom’s enterprise to
account for the institution of genuine normativity. The enterprise is either
seen as being reductionist or as being circular. Those who judge the account
to be reductionist – like McDowell – assume that Brandom stays within the
confines of the view from sideways on (which, in fact, he does until the end of
Chapter 8) and thus presents an account of normative statuses that can be
reduced to talk about normative attitudes and ultimately about sanctioning
behaviour. Seen from that perspective, Brandom’s official position that such
a reduction is possible, but not mandatory, appears as a mere curiosity at
best, and at worst as an attempt to camouflage the reductionist character of
the project.
On the other hand, those who judge the account to be circular – like
Grönert – realise that in the end Brandom does give pride of place to the
first-person perspective of the agent instead of the view from sideways on.
But they assume that this move squarely makes the enterprise of giving a
phenomenalist account of normativity collapse, because ultimately it has to
appeal to the very notion of an objective normative status it set out to make
intelligible in the first place.55 For in Chapter 9, these critics argue, it is suggested that it is the “proprieties” of normative attitudes as normatively assessed by an interpreter that are made accountable for the objectivity of normative statuses instituted by the attitudes. However, this presupposes, on the
part of the interpreter, a grasp of the difference between normative attitudes
and objective normative statuses.56 For the interpreter would not be engaged
in the business of intentional interpretation if she only mapped the normative attitudes of the practitioners onto her own normative attitudes. Instead
she has to be engaged in mapping the practitioners’ normative attitudes, including her own, onto what she takes to be objective normative statuses. In
other words, the interpreter would not be an interpreter at all if she did not
understand that the set of normative attitudes that she uses as a standard for
normatively assessing the normative attitudes of other practitioners does not
deserve to serve as such a standard because it contingently happens to be her
Thus Grönert writes: “[T]he essence of normative phenomenalism as Brandom characterizes it is the rejection of the phenomenliast approach to normativity from which he
starts out.” (Grönert 2005, p. 174)
56 See Rödl 2000, pp. 773-775.
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
set of attitudes, but rather that this set of attitudes is hers because it conforms
to what she takes the standard objectively to be – which includes the obligation
to subject her own set of attitudes to revision if it turns out to be out of line
with the standard.57 The interpreter must grasp herself as being bound by the
very objective norms that she interprets a discursive practice as instituting.
Thus, “proprieties of normative attitudes” is just a different term for the notion of a normative status.58 But then it seems that normative statuses have
not been made intelligible in terms of normative attitudes, as the phenomenalist account of normativity claimed it would.
It seems to me that the impasse created by these two readings results from
treating the disjunction between reductionism and circularity as being exhaustive.59 It is assumed that the project of normative pragmatics must either lead to a full-blown third-personal, sideways-on account of genuine normativity and intentionality, or it must end in a circle by establishing that the
first-personal, intentional perspective of the agent is unaccountable for in
any terms other than its own. But in fact, I suggest, this way of seeing things
is not mandatory. There is a third option: expressive bootstrapping, which is
neither reductionist nor circular. It is not circular because, as I have argued
in the foregoing section, we can make better sense of Making It Explicit if we
do not allow ourselves to be misled by Brandom’s own signposts into ignoring
or misunderstanding the crucial move of Chapter 9, which renounces the view
from sideways on. However, it does not follow from this that the whole attempt to even try and elaborate a sideways-on view of discursive practice as
far as possible was futile, and that the only possible conclusion to be drawn
from acknowledging the irreducibility of intentionality and genuine normativity would be to acquiesce in some kind of quietism.60 From the fact that
the normative perspective of the agent and interpreter cannot be traded in
for an ever so cleverly elaborated descriptive perspective of the observer, it
does not follow that there would be nothing to be learned from looking at
things from the observer’s perspective. We do need both perspectives to make
sense of ourselves and of our discursive practices. Thus it is not true that the
only thing that a non-intentional account of discursive practice as given from
the observer’s perspective would be good for is to serve as a ladder to be kiSee Loeffler 2005, pp. 39 f. for a good explanation of this thought.
See MIE, p. 628.
59 Sebastian Rödl, for one, thinks that Brandom wavers between reductionist and antireductionist impulses and that his account is therefore inherently unstable. See Rödl 2000,
pp. 766 and 777 ff.
60 I take it to be obvious that there is a palpable analogy here to the question of how to
read the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
David Lauer
cked away once we have recognised its futility.61 Think of it rather like a diving platform erected in the middle of a huge swimming pool: You can climb
up it to see the exact shape of the pool (which is not possible while you are in
it), and to notice how what in the water looks like a throng of millions of
swimmers each paddling the pool in his or her own direction, can be discerned
to exhibit clearly identifiable patterns from above. Of course, the one thing
you cannot do while you’re up there is to have a good swim, but that doesn’t
mean that it is not worthwhile going up. There is no need to kick away anything. Once you’ve seen enough, just jump right back in.
I believe that this attitude helps precisely in understanding the problem of
the interpreter’s own grasp of objective normative statuses: For while it remains true that the interpreter cannot evade the irreducibly normative firstpersonal stance in praxi, that is, as long as she is trying to understand, it is
also true that she can, at other times, be an observer of herself, and can thus
know that, seen from sideways on, what she is doing in her appealing to objective normative statuses, is nothing but her appealing to a set of perspectival, contingent normative attitudes – the attitudes she happens to have.
From that perspective, her appealing to objective normative statuses can be
accounted for in terms of her taking plain vanilla normative attitudes, and
thus any air of mystery surrounding that capacity of hers can be explained
away. The price to pay for the enlightenment to be had from that perspective
is that no communication, no understanding is possible from there.62 Our interpreter will never be in a position to take the two stances, the normativeinterpretational and the phenomenalist-observational stance, at once. But
what her life is like – call it the human condition – will essentially be characterised by her ability to take them both, each at a time, and by the degree of
sophistication to which she has mastered the terrifyingly complex skill of
navigating between them according to circumstances. Mastering this skill is
what it means to be a rational animal, and a bearer of genuine intentionality.
I owe this suggestion and allusion to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus to Grönert 2005, p. 166.
Therefore, the idea of a genuinely intentional being with only the capacity to take the
observer’s, but not the agent’s point of view, is a conceptual impossibility. A being that
spent its entire life up on the diving platform would never learn to be a swimmer. But
since the diving platform is erected in the middle of the pool, how should the creature
have gotten there?
Genuine Normativity, Expressive Bootstrapping, and Normative Phenomenalism
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David Lauer
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