File spoon-archives/habermas.archive/habermas_2000/habermas.0006, message 33

Subject: HAB: RE: habermas and brandom
Date: Wed, 28 Jun 2000 10:05:49 -0400

Dear Antti,

I'd be happy to throw out a few thoughts on the Habermas/Brandom business.

First, I think Brandom's work gets Habermasians excited because it provides 
a rigorous defence of a claim that is quite central to Habermas's entire 
conception of critical theory, but which Habermas himself has never been 
able to defend conclusively. Habermas is committed to the view that when a 
critical theorist comes along and starts questioning some social practice, 
this is not an "external" or alien imposition. He wants to claim that the 
participants have all along been committed to defending the practice with 
good reasons, and thus the critical theorist is simply activating 
commitments that were already raised "internal" to that practice. Why must 
they have already made such commitments? Because they used language to 
coordinate their interactions. According to Habermas, when an agent 
produces an utterance s/he commits her/himself to providing good reasons 
for it. Understanding the meaning of the utterance then _consists in_ a 
grasp of these reasons. This is the core idea underlying so-called 
"inferential semantics." So the participants in the practice must already 
have been in the game of giving and asking for reasons, and the critical 
theorist is simply making a move that any participant in the game is 
entitled to make. Thus the idea of a hermetically sealed culture or 
practice, immune to social criticism, is non-sensical.

This is a nice argument to deploy in the old "where does the critic stand?" 
debate. But it all hinges on the claim that meaning is given by inferential 
relations. Without this thesis, Habermas has got nothing. In his own work, 
however, he does not work out a developed theory of meaning. He only 
adverts to Dummett's "epistemic turn" in order motivate his position. (The 
centrality of this Dummett argument for Habermas is something that I have 
been trying to convince people of for years without much success. So I was 
happy to find Lafont taking the same view in her *Hermeneutic Turn* book.) 
Anyhow, Dummett's semantics are a bit of a rough fit with Habermas's 
project. Then along comes Brandom with a richly detailed, elaborate 
articulation of the view that understanding meaning involves understanding 
inferential relations (most importantly, he shows how the inferentialist 
view can generate a composition semantics, and how it can account for 
reference).This initially looked like just the thing Habermas needed to 
plug the hole in his argument.

Ok, there's the long-winded preface. Now a few short observations. 
Brandom's view actually creates a lot more trouble for Habermas that it 
might at first seem:

1. Most importantly, Brandom carries out his whole project using only 
_assertions_, and the epistemic relations among assertions, as the class of 
content-conferring speech act types. Habermas has had a tendency to dismiss 
truth-conditional semantics, and the attendant emphasis on assertion, as 
simply an artifact of the "cognitivist bias" (read "scientism") permeating 
analytic philosophy. Brandom, however, does not suffer from any such 
biases, and in fact presents very powerful arguments in favour of 
privileging assertions (viz. that only assertions can be used as both 
premises and conclusions of arguments, embedded in conditionals, etc.) This 
is a very serious problem for Habermas's view that the different speech act 
types, with their respective validity claims, must all be treated "on par."

2. Brandom adopts a deflationary theory of truth. More specially, he treats 
truth as a piece of "expressive vocabulary" (e.g. like a pronoun). 
Expressive vocabulary is completely devoid of content. As a result, the 
idea that truth is a special sort of "validity claim" with parallels to 
rightness and sincerity, begins to look like a mistake. Furthermore, since 
Tarski's Scheme T is a consequence of this theory of truth, it means that 
anything that can be formulated as an assertion is capable of truth or 
falsity. It is a trivial consequence of this view that moral judgements, 
like "murder is wrong," are either straightforwardly true or false. Thus 
there is no reason to go into the complicated ruse of introducing rightness 
claims as a separate class of validity claims in order to defend moral 
cognitivism. All of this casts serious doubt about the whole "three 
validity claims" doctrine. But if this goes down, then the claim that there 
is something called "practical discourse," which is governed by a special 
set of inferential rules (like U), in which rightness claims are redeemed, 
begins to look dicey.

3. Finally, just to note that Habermas's recent move away from a strictly 
epistemic conception of truth, seems to be motivated, at least in part, by 
the desire to distance himself from certain implications of Brandom's view. 
Brandom's analysis of assertion and truth leaves no room for the "three 
validity claim" thesis, so Habermas is moving to "beef up" his conception 
of truth with some kind of quasi-realist content in order to avoid this 
conclusion, and rescue his view that there is some kind of structural 
distinction between practical and theoretical discourse.

I'm sorry I don't have time to get into more detail. At the risk of 
self-promotion, let me just note that anyone interesting in point number 1 
might like to check out my paper in Philosophy & Social Criticism called 
"What is a Validity Claim?" (1998), which discusses Habermas's three 
validity claim thesis in the context of Dummett and Brandom's work. As for 
point 2, I have a fairly extensive discussion of this in a book that is 
forthcoming from MIT Press under the unlikely title *Communicative Action 
and Rational Choice*. May be out in time for Xmas.

Best regards,
Joe Heath
University of Toronto

P.S. Brandom cites Habermas in one of his early journal articles on the 
nature or emergence of norms. I forget the exact title. So he knew 
Habermas's work. I think the lack of references in MIE is due to the fact 
that nothing Habermas says is particularly helpful in advancing Brandom's 
own argument. Anyhow, Habermas and Brandom have been seeing a lot of each 
other. Most of this is Tom McCarthy's doing (McCarthy, incidentally, is an 
old-school Sellarsian). He saw Brandom making all the right moves on Rorty 
at the APA one year, and decided that Brandom was the next big thing.

P.P.S. Bill: the accusation against Sellars -- if i recall it correctly -- 
is that he presupposes contentful intentional states when he should be 
explaining them (or at least explaining where they get their content from).

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