Between Saying and Doing


Richard Marshall interviews Robert Brandom in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: And then there’s the pragmatism – both the American and the Wittgensteinian species that you draw upon and develop. Aren’t these an alternative rather than an extension to the analytic approach? Wasn’t the later Wittgenstein of the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ reacting against the analytics – and his earlier self? How do you manage to run pragmatism in the analytic spirit, and why?

RB: It is easy to see pragmatism as not only critical of but antithetical to analytic philosophy’s concern with meanings. Wittgensteinian pragmatism about discursivity urges us to shift our attention from the analyst’s focus on meaning to concern with use—from semantics in the traditional sense to pragmatics in a broad sense. Rorty, like Dewey, wants to replace analytic philosophy’s master-concept of representation by concern with coping and practical agreement. Heidegger relocates the description and explanation characteristic of Vorhandenheit as a late-coming parochial sub-region of the more primordial Zuhandenheit. And so on. Wittgenstein himself seems to have drawn semantically nihilistic conclusions from his foregrounding of the social practices that constitute the use of linguistic expressions. Methodological pragmatists assert that the point of associating meanings with expressions (as theoretical postulates) would be to codify proprieties governing their use. Wittgenstein takes it that the uses in question are so varied and motley, and above all so plastic and variable, as to defy such regimentation. This is a point that his admirer Charles Travis in our own day has underscored with examples exhibiting the unavoidable “occasion sensitivity” of even the most ordinary empirical descriptive vocabulary—from which he has also drawn skeptical conclusions about the prospects for compositional truth-conditional semantics as classically conceived.

But I think concern with meanings and concern with the use of expressions, semantics and pragmatics, ought to be seen as complementing, rather than competing with one another. Methodological pragmatism and semantic pragmatism about philosophical semantics—that is, the claim that all there is to associate meanings (semantically relevant whatsises) with expressions is their use—do not together entail the semantic nihilist conclusions Wittgenstein and Travis want to draw. One of the ways in which classical analytic philosophy read its brief too narrowly is that it did not systematically consider the ways in which the meanings expressed by some vocabularies can make explicit what is implicit in the use of other vocabularies. This is true for instance of vocabularies whose principal expressive role is to serve as pragmatic metalanguages for other vocabularies. Expressions for normative statuses, such as “commitment” and “entitlement” let us say what it is one is doing in endorsing a claim or an inference.

More here.