Saturday, June 23, 2007

Rearticulating reasons: objectivity

This post is my stab at understanding the last section of the last chapter of Articulating Reasons.

In the last section of chapter 6 of Articulating Reasons, Brandom tackles the problem of making room for a notion of objectivity. This is important because he is trying to give an assertibility-conditional semantics. Truth-conditional semantics have a clear route to objectivity since what is true is independent of any agent's attitudes in a reasonable sense. The primitives for the inferentialist are going to be commitment and entitlement, so the question is how to come up with, in Brandom's phrase, an attitude transcendent notion of objectivity. This is one of the more interesting and important parts of the book, but it is also one of the more poorly written parts. Alas!

To make room for objectivity, there needs to be some way to cash out the difference in truth-conditions, without invoking truth, between two sorts of sentences: a claim and its meta-claims, where meta-claims involve the attitude or ascription of an agent. For example, "I am in Pittsburgh" is a claim and some of its meta-claims include "I am committed to the claim that I am in Pittsburgh" and "I assert that I am in Pittsburgh". There is a difference in truth-conditions between claims and their meta-claims. (The claim/meta-claim terminology is mine. It should be useful for explaining what is going on.) The primitives of evaluation for the assertibilist are entitlement and commitment. There are instances where one can be committed and entitled to both a claim and a meta-claim, e.g., to use Brandom's example: (a) "I will write a book" and (b) "I foresee I will write a book". Commitment to both can be obtained by, possibly, resolute avowals of your plans to write. Entitlement to both will be secured by roughly the same assertions for both. What can be said in defense of the former can be said in defense of the latter. The point isn't that commitment and entitlement to both necessarily go together, just that they possibly can. It is possible that the assertibilist cannot distinguish them solely in terms of commitment and entitlement alone.

Commitment alone and entitlement alone cannot account for the difference. However, incompatibility, which was introduced earlier in chapter 6 and discussed briefly a few posts ago, can. To recap, two claims are incompatible just in case commitment to one precludes entitlement to the other. The interaction of the two primitive notions give us the derived notion which will be used here. This is sort of the philosophy analog to Chekhov's gun principle: a concept introduced in an earlier argument will be used by the end of the book in an argument. Here is where it happens. The incompatibilities associated with (a) differ from those associated with (b), i.e. Inc(a) != Inc(b). To take Brandom's example again, "I will die in 10 minutes" is incompatible with (a), but not with (b), taking "foresee" in a non-omniscient, slightly weak way.

This gives the assertibilist a way to insert a gap between a claim and its meta-claims, to reflect the gap that the proponent truth-conditional claims is there. This should show that there is space in the inferentialist picture for objectivity, in the sense of attitude-transcendence. While the assertibility conditions on claims and meta-claims might be the same, they can be distinguished in terms of incompatibilities. This doesn't go the extra mile toward an account of objectivity. If memory serves, there is a stab at that near the end of Making It Explicit. This move just shows there is room for the notion objectivity.

Suppose one asks if there is a difference between the incompatibilities of a proposition p and "it is truth that p". It seems straightforward that anything incompatible with the former is incompatible with the latter and vice versa. Assume that q is incompatible with p. Then commitment to q then precludes entitlement to p. But, what entitles one to p would entitle one to "it is true that p". So q is incompatible with "it is true that p". Similarly for the converse. Incompatibilities do not distinguish between p and "it is true that p", which seems desirable. Brandom thinks he can exploit the notion of incompatibility to define a predicate "it is assertible that ..." which is disquotational in the same way the truth predicate is. In his jargon, this would be a predicate such that "it is assertible that p" has the same incompatibilities as p. This would be the same incompatibilities as "it is true that p". This would allow the assertibility-condition proponent to say that everything that the truth predicate does can be simulated by a predicate defined out of only her primitive notions. I do not know what I think of this last move, defining this assertibility predicate. I'm much less comfortable with it than other parts of the argument. It doesn't seem to get all the way to an account of objectivity, and it doesn't provide much beyond the demonstration that there is room for objectivity in the Brandom picture. "It is assertible that..." also seems to introduce another modality which is lacking in the truth predicate (as pointed out to me by another Pitt grad student). Incompatibility is a modal notion, but, outside of incompatibilities, the two predicates, truth and assertibility, differ as to modality, which is problematic for claiming an equivalence.

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