Sunday, January 13, 2008

Reflections on Brandom's Woodbridge Lectures 3

Other people have thoughts on Brandom's third Woodbridge lecture too. I will get back to my comfort zone of topics this week, I hope. Read more

The third lecture was primarily on Hegelian ideas. In a way, it was the most interesting since it talked about conceptual change. In a way, it was the least interesting since I think it was the least cohesive and I didn't understand a few things in it. If I had a better since of Hegel or if Brandom had put a little more meat on the bones of his story I may have thought otherwise. One of the ways he explained the story of conceptual change was through common law. Judges recognize certain of past ruling as binding and use those to lay down rules for correctness of future decisions which must in turn be recognized as binding for future judges to be bound by their precedents. This is supposed to combine the synthesis of judgments in the first lecture with the reciprocal recognition stuff from the second chapter. This works as a story for things like common law and more human dependent concepts, such as justice. I'm not sure I see what is supposed to happen here with respect to concepts like atom and other more scientific concepts. Is the world supposed to be the other party? Are the scientists recognizing certain past experiments as providing refuting or confirming results in cobbling together theories which are taken as constitutive of new iterations of the concepts? Brandom was pressed on this point in the questions but I didn't follow what he said. He seems to think that this model works for concepts which are, to use a different vocabulary, more historical and those which have more of an essence.

The development of concepts has two parts or temporal perspectives. One is the retrospective, looking back at successful applications and constructing a story about how they were. The other is prospective, making judgments about what should count as correct novel applications of a concept. (As an aside, the notion of an application of a concept started to seem weird as the lectures progressed. The idea of an application of a function in, say, the lambda calculus has a determinant meaning. It is a little less clear what it is to apply a concept. It sounds like one is putting a stamp on something. The application of a concept sounds a lot like a doing of some sort, but at the moment it isn't clear what sort of doing it is.) This cashes out the content of a concept in terms of an activity. This is one of the key methodological ideas in MIE, i.e. pragmatism, or methodological pragmatism. What must one do in order to count as using an expression with a certain meaning. Brandom attributed this idea to both Kant and Hegel. I'm not sure how well it fits with either, but it is an idea that I like. Apparently Stalnaker has recently started writing about it too (Brandom alluded to Stalnaker's writing at the start of last term but didn't say what things in particular.)

The process of concept change seems to be driven by a concept that stays in the background, reason or rationality. (This point was brought out and pressed by one of the other grad students.) Brandom doesn't say much about this and he said that Hegel doesn't say much about it either. It somehow stays out of the conceptual flux. He got out of this one by claiming that Hegel wasn't trying to explain the concept of reason. Exegetically this move is probably fine, but if one wants to rehabilitate Hegelian ideas, it seems like something that needs to be tackled. Why does reason stay so stable while all the other concepts contain the seeds of their own destruction?

The other thing that I was puzzled by in this lecture was the notion of expressive progress. Brandom puts it: "Exhibiting a sequence of precedential concept applications-by-integration as expressively progressive - as the gradual, cumulative making explicit of reality as revealed by one's current commitments, recollectively made visible as having all along been implicit - shows the prior, defective commitments endorsed, and conceptual contents deployed, as nonetheless genuinely appearances representing, however inadequately, how things really are." The expressive part is odd since it wasn't explained how the integration of new judgments makes explicit anything implicit in the old commitments. One isn't putting them in propositional form, just rejecting, extrapolating or justifying. In MIE this phrase would have had a definite meaning but in the context of Hegel it is unclear what is happening and surely he is not importing the whole theory of MIE into his view of Hegel. The progressive part is also odd since there doesn't seem to be any reason why one should think that a new integration should make everything clearer while obscuring nothing. It seems likely that new judgments could clarify certain things but require us to give up nice explanations or understandings of certain phenomena. An example would be something like Galileo providing a lot of new explanatory material for certain things but not having any explanation of inertia to replace the Aristotelian one he rejected. (If this story is wrong, there should be something analogous out there.) Why could concepts not take two steps backwards to get one step forward? One might say that once you have the truth you don't have to let it go, but that sort of picture seems to be rejected here. One might be an early adopter of the concept of atoms, then be forced to give it up by reasonable arguments, then come back to the concept of atoms later on once the other non-atomic concepts have fallen apart. The claim might be that rather than each individual integration being progressive, it is only expressively progressive in the long run. This seems slightly more reasonable although still mysterious.

One thing that was raised during the question period by Anil Gupta, which I found very interesting, was a complaint that Brandom's version of idealism made it mysterious what Moore and Russell's complaints about idealism were aiming at. I don't know what Russell's complains were. I thought he just abandoned Kantian views of math and such wholesale. Moore, apparently, had arguments against the idealistic thesis of the world's dependence on the mind. This goes missing in Brandom's story of idealism. It brings out how different this version of idealism is from the older versions that seemed to have more teeth. Interestingly, the response from Brandom was that those complaints were based on a misunderstanding of Kant and Hegel. The question this leaves us with is what is so idealist about this idealism. Is it the lack of reliance on the notion of experience? Is it the story about concept formation and change? The notion of phenomena? At the end of all this the notion of idealism, whose animating ideas were supposedly laid bare, remains somewhat obscure. I'm not sure what to make of this question either. It highlights the unorthodox nature of the interpretation, but this was also made explicit up front. It would have been nice to hear more about it. I'm not sure what sort of idealism is being endorsed in this story.


Daniel Lindquist said...

On the last point: I suspect that the "idealism" in question here is just German Idealism, with an emphasis on Hegel & the parts of Kant & co. which lead to Hegel. In which case it's not "idealism" in the sense Moore's "Refutation of Idealism" was concerned with at all. Asking "Was Hegel an 'idealist'?" is a fairly common theme in the Hegel literature; the answer is pretty roundly "No, not in any sense in which we would use the term." So I don't think that this part of Brandom's Hegel says anything against the orthodoxy of his account. Stern's "Hegel's Idealism" is typical, here (and a very nice article on the topic).

I know I've heard Brandom mention in several of the audio whatsits I've listened to that he thinks Russell was simply wrong when he took Kant & Hegel to have no logic to work with beyond Aristotle's; Russell just wasn't a very good reader of Kant & Hegel. If memory serves, he was emphatic on the point in "Kantian Lessons on Mind, Meaning, and Reality"; I recall him lamenting the effects of Russell & Moore's misreadings on current predispositions toward Hegel & the Kantian tradition.

(As to why the German Idealists kept hanging onto the "idealist" tag: I think Kant has fine reasons for considering his views as some sort of "idealism"; objects as they are for the understanding are not as they are in themselves, and it's the former that's the object of knowledge. The objects of our knowledge depend on our subjective imposition of forms of space and time to be as they are, and this sort of "mind-dependence of objects" sounds like a kind of "idealism" in the vulgar sense. The Post-Kantians start to go off in entirely different directions with the term, though; "idealism" as it was used by Kant starts to get blurred with "critical philosophy" (in a broad sense -- think "What Is Enlghtenment?" more than the Critiques). Fichte flat opposes "idealism" and "dogmatism" as the two possible routes for philosophy in his introductions to the Wissenschaftlehre, and it then comes down to a moral question which of the two one takes; "the sort of philosophy one prefers depends on the sort of person one is." Which is a far cry from metaphysical questions of idealism-vs.-realism etc. And Fichte was very influential at the time. So the German Idealists called themselves "idealists" because they're opposed to dogmatism (either in the sense of the metaphysical school of Liebniz-Wollf, or the sense of "humanity's self-imposed tutelage"; the two are seen as being connected). They don't mean by "idealism" that "reality is spiritual" or "everything is conscious" or anything like what Moore lays out in the first part of his "Refutation of Idealism", or the various strawmen Russell attacks in the Kant/Hegel chapters of his "History of Western Philosophy." It's just that after Kant, "idealism" was the name for the tradition of thought which was opposed to the older one.)

(I leave unanswered the question of the relationship between German Idealism and British Idealism; the latter was the proximal cause of Moore & Russell's dissatisfactions. From what I know of British Idealism, I'm not anxious to spend a great deal more time studying the stuff; Bradley looks like a muddled wreck. And it all seems orthogonal to the Kant-Hegel line.)

That went on a bit longer than it needed to; I suppose my initial sentence said about all that really needed saying.

Justin said...

I would think that the account applies to scientific concepts insofar as there are sometimes indeterminacies about how to develop a concept in light of new theories. It's the nature of scientific enquiry that such cases are not too common. But even a case like finding out that Water is H20 requires some commitments about natural kinds, essences, or whatnot. If I remember my potted history and philosophy of science, the case of mass might work--the theory of relativity made it so that two of the commitments central to the Newtonian concept of mass couldn't be simultaneously satisfied, so there was a decision to be made about which to treat as mass in the new theory.