Pink Elephants

Alex Oliver

  • Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism by Robert Brandom
    Harvard, 230 pp, £21.95, June 2000, ISBN 0 674 00158 3

I have to confess that before starting on this review I hadn’t read Robert Brandom’s massive Making It Explicit (1994). Although it’s famous, very few of my colleagues have read it either (I mean read it, not just bought it or dipped their toes in it). Writing such a walrus of a book is a risky business. Life is short and it’s publish or perish; so a lot is written and little is read. Michael Dummett, one of the very few contemporary philosophers who, like Brandom, have dared to write books of more than seven hundred pages, has even declared that the merit of a publication ‘must be great enough to outweigh the disservice done by its being published at all’. So the present book, billed as ‘an approachable introduction to the complex system that Making It Explicit mapped out’, promises great relief.

Jackets are designed to push one from the shelves to the till, and this jacket has the lot: an enigmatic photograph of a Japanese town, eulogistic quotes and an author who looks for all the world like a member of ZZ Top. A hyperbolical blurb crowns all this, with talk of ‘a near-Copernican shift in the philosophy of language’. This is doubly allusive. First, to Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’ in his first Critique, which turned metaphysics and epistemology inside out, making objects conform to the structure of our minds, just as Copernicus explained the apparent motion of the planets in terms of the real motion of the spectator. And then to Thomas Kuhn’s use of the Copernican overthrow of Ptolemaic astronomy as an example of the paradigm shift characteristic of scientific revolutions.

These twin associations illustrate Brandom’s schizoid self-image as the revolutionary – ‘opposed to many (if not most) of the large theoretical, explanatory and strategic commitments that have shaped and motivated Anglo-American philosophy in the 20th century’ – but also as the spokesman and latest member of a tradition which includes the deities (Kant, Hegel, Frege and Wittgenstein) as well as Dummett, Rorty (Brandom’s teacher) and ‘the Sage of Pittsburgh’ (his university), Wilfrid Sellars.

Brandom’s overarching aim is old-fashioned: to find a single, all-or-nothing feature which distinguishes us both from inanimate, reliable indicators such as thermostats and sentient creatures such as parrots. His answer is equally traditional. We are rational animals (his word is ‘sapient’). To be rational is to apply concepts, and concept-use is an ‘essentially linguistic affair’. Thermostats don’t apply any concepts when they switch over. Merely uttering sounds which are indistinguishable from English is insufficient, however. A parrot trained to respond ‘that’s red’ to a swatch of material is not applying concepts either (Locke’s loquacious parrot was merely sounding off). So Brandom needs an account of linguistic practice which will ground his claims about concepts and rationality.

The problem with language, like so many targets for philosophical investigation, is knowing where to start. Gilbert Ryle drew a rich picture of the philosopher as traffic policeman trying to unpick a jam ‘when crowds of conceptual vehicles, of different sorts and moving in different directions meet at some conceptual crossroads’. We can put the same image in terms of facts. Sometimes they come from quite different domains: for example, here are all the facts of particle physics and there are all the facts about minds, or morals, or mathematics, or medium-sized dry goods, or, to take our present case, meanings. How do they fit together?

Moreover, different features of a given domain need to be jointly controlled. In the domain of language, the two most obvious facts are that linguistic expressions have meaning and that we use language to do things. These are clearly connected, but how? Brandom begins with speech acts – what is done with language – and hopes to derive an account of meaning from use, an explanatory order encapsulated in his slogan, ‘semantics must answer to pragmatics.’

Think of all the things we do with language. We tell jokes and stories, sing songs, skip to rhymes, solve crosswords. We insult, swear, apologise, save face and impress. We instruct, persuade, vote and umpire (‘Not out’). Then there are all the forms of ritual (‘I baptise you . . .’). Then all sorts of social glue, starting with Malinowski’s ‘phatic communion’ – the idle and rigid chit-chat of ‘How are you?’, ‘Nice morning, isn’t it?’, ‘Ciao’ – right up to the dextrous mock insults of sounding and rapping.

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