Brandom on Hegelian Magnanimity in the face of Reductive Naturalism

The story is familiar. The esteem enlightenment Reason feels for itself as it explains and disenchants more and more of the world turns soon enough into dispair and confusion as Reason turns on itself to explain its own normative discourse in non-normative causal terms.  Such a picture is what Brandom calls here genealogy and it is associated with the skepticism and eliminativism we read in Schopenhauer,  Nietzsche and in contemporary philosophy and science today in thinkers like the Churchlands and Metzinger.  Following Hegel’s metaphor, Brandom characterizes this form of hermeneutics as the metaphysics of the “valet” who, as the saying goes, sees the man never as the hero but only as the man behind the hero’s façade. As far as genealogy is concerned rational discourse – the once noble pursuit of truth and or knowledge, the game of giving and asking for reasons – is the heroic façade masking the plebian reality of senseless causal processes done up to look like dialogue and normative order. The fMRI scan of the so-called ‘reason-responsive’ brain is the valet’s view of the hero as the ordinary man behind the scenes, perspiring and defecating like all the rest of us. The problem with this view is however, as Brandom points out in his lecture and elsewhere, that the genealogical account is itself only intelligible insofar as it is part of the normative discourse it wants to destroy. Reductionist metaphysics is a move in a language game and in a rational tradition and cannot if it is to remain intelligible overturn the source and succour of its own intelligibility. The hero pays the valet’s wages.

There is of course a compelling argument put forward by Brandom to render this defense of Reason more than just convincing. But I want to focus the current thought on what I see as a flaw or lacuna in Brandom’s system.

For Brandom, the problem of the purely genealogical account of Reason which explains thoughts, actions and norms as nothing other than the mere epiphenomena of so much pulpy neuronal palpitations and firings is that such an account fails to recognize that the semantic content of our concepts and propositions does not come ready-made into the world ex nihilo. Instead, Brandom insists that semantics gains its meanings and conceptual content only through our linguistic and conceptual practices and thus, makes no sense outside of that context.

I agree wholeheartedly with Brandom on this point. However, the way Brandom tells the story, our normative discourse is an essentially social phenomenon and a necessarily social one. He takes this to be a Hegelian point and maintains with the latter that Geist is not a brainbound entity or process but a property, if you will, of the social world. Again, not much to contest here. But I want to call into question the notion that we could ever understand the individual society as a locus of Geist without first availing ourselves of an understanding of the Self as a more fundamental form of the individual. To be sure, the Person is a decidedly social entity but persoonhood, it seems to me, supervenes on selfhood just as my name supervenes on my “I”. The Person is something I become or rather take on. Now, it will be argued that the reverse is no less true: the child only becomes an I or a Self by being treated as a person with a name and as a member of the family-sized society. But this picture would have it that what the family-sized society welcomes into its hearth as a child is i) not bound by conceptual norms and ii) not an entity who has a “world in view” to quote McDowell. That is to say, that Brandom’s story seems to have it that selfhood just is personhood and to me this account is clearly an impoverished view of what it is to be a self-conscious human individual. What I think we need is a story that narrates the Person as an expansion or fulfillment of the Self and the We as an expansion and fulfillment of the I. Otherwise, Brandom is, in his own way, playing the valet.


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