Friday, June 01, 2007

Rearticulating Reasons: conservative and harmonious

I'm doing a reading group this summer with some of the other Pitt grads on Brandom's Articulating Reasons and (later) McDowell's Mind and World. I finally got my copy of Articulating Reasons (AR) back, so I figure I will do a few posts on issues we've covered in discussion. The first is going to be Brandom's discussion of harmony in the final sections of chapter 1. For some good background on harmony, check out the presentation slides that Ole put up. They are quite helpful.

On the inferentialist picture in AR, the meaning of a word or concept is given by the inferences in which it figures. Brandom discusses Prior's tonk objection to this idea for the case of logical constants, and then he goes on to state Belnap's reply that logical constants should be conservative. This will not work for placing restrictions on the introduction of new vocabulary into a language for an inferentialist (understanding the inferentialist project as trying to give the meanings for the whole language, not just the logical constants) since conservativeness is too strong. To be conservative is not to license any inferences to conclusions that are free of the new vocabulary. This however is to not add any new conceptual content, i.e. any new material inferences. Adding new conceptual content would mean licensing new material inferences which would interact with the old vocabulary and conceptual content to get new conclusions. Brandom sums this up by saying, "the expressive account of what distinguishes logical vocabulary shows us a deep reason for this demand; it is needed not only to avoid horrible consequences but also because otherwise logical vocabulary cannot perform its expressive function." It take this to mean that logical vocabulary can make something explicit because it is not adding any content to the mix, not muddying the conceptual waters so to speak (or even to throw another metaphor in, not creating the danger of crossing the beams of the conceptual). I will say more about this in another post.

Brandom proceeds to the next obvious constraint on inferences, Dummett's notion of harmony, which is supposed to generalize Belnap's conservativeness. Brandom doesn't say much to shed light on what precisely harmony is. The idea, presented roughly, is to find some sort of nice relationship between the introduction rules (circumstances of application; left rules) and the elimination rules (consequences of application; right rules). Brandom reads Dummett as hoping there will be a tight connection between the consequences of a statement and the criteria of its truth (p. 74 in AR, p. 358 in Dummett's Frege: Philosophy of Language). Dummett also says that conservativeness is a necessary but not sufficient condition on harmony. Brandom thinks there is reason to doubt the latter, namely that new content can be added harmoniously to an existing set of material inferences, which conservativeness does not allow. Following Wittgenstein, Brandom thinks there is reason to doubt the former. I won't go into that though. He sees Dummett as wanting a theory of meaning to provide an account of harmony between circumstances and consequences of application.
Brandom says, "that presupposes that the circumstances and consequences of application of the concept of harmony do not themselves stand in a substantive material inferential relation." Instead, Brandom thinks the idea of harmony only makes sense as the process of harmonizing, repairing, and elucidating concepts. He seems to take it as requiring an investigation into what sorts of inferences ought to be endorsed, normative rather than descriptive. This process, on the Brandomian picture, is done by making inferential connections explicit through the codification of these in conditionals and then criticizing and defending these commitments. Sounds a wee bit hegelian (I say like I know anything about Hegel...).

Brandom's idea here seems to be that conservativeness works for characterizing or constraining what counts as a logical constant. I have some qualms about this since conservativeness will be relative to the initial vocabulary and set of material inferences. Harmony will not serve as a constraint on the wider field of all material inferences since the concept of harmony itself must stand in inferential relations, so it is subject to change over time, revised in light of other commitments. If this is so, I don't see why that consideration wouldn't also apply to conservativeness, unless that somehow can be added conservatively to all languages. I'm skeptical that that is the case. If that is right, I'm not sure how Brandom can maintain that harmony cannot function as a semantic constraint while conservativeness can. It seems like he wants to have his cake and eat it too.

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