Rödl, Brandom, and the Puzzle of Rational Boundedness

Suppose I’m hiking in the woods in New Hampshire.  I’m going down the path, and about 100 feet in front of me, I see a large black bear.  Not wanting to disturb it and become bear-food, I quietly turn around to find a different path.  My friend, who was a few hundred yards behind me and eager to see the view that lies at the end of this trail, sees me walking back and asks why I turned around. While this is just one question, we can break down what he’s looking for into two separate requests.  The first thing he’s looking for is a causal explanation.  Seeing me coming down this way is something unexpected, and he wants to know what made it the case that I would come back down rather than continue.  The second thing he’s looking for is a justification.  Since he’s quite eager to see the view at the end of the trail, he wants to know what reason I have to come back down the mountain.    When I say, “There was a bear up there, so I turned around,” it seems like I’ve provided an answer to both of these questions.  With one speech act, I’ve both causally explained my actions and justified them.

To explain how it is possible to causally explain something by justifying it, it seems that we must say that, somehow, intentional actions are causally bounded by rational standards.  Intentional actions, by their very nature, conform to standards of rationality.  A contrastive example of non-intentional action will make this clearer.  A foot spasm isn’t an intentional action.  We can give a causal explanation of a foot spasm, perhaps citing the workings of the nervous system and whatnot, but we can’t explain a foot spasm by justifying it.  There is no such thing as explaining a foot spasm by justifying it because its cause isn’t a rational one.  Intentional actions, by contrast, are bounded by rational norms, and it’s in virtue of this boundedness that we can casually explain them by justifying them.

That much seems clear enough.  Explaining this boundedness, however, is not an easy task.  In fact, I think exploring the conflict in two different approaches to this question will bring light to a fundamental division in two otherwise quite similar philosophers.  Sebastian Rödl and Robert Brandom are both analytic philosophers who see their philosophical work as an attempt to revive the insights of Kant and Hegel in contemporary philosophy.  However, though they share this common orientation, they differ quite radically in their approach in explaining rational boundedness.  Rödl, staying true to Kantian methodology, employs what we’ll call a formalist approach—he aims to explain the concept of rational boundedness in virtue its “transcendental form,” a form that he thinks is inherent in the structure of self-consciousness itself.  Brandom, drawing more centrally from his reading of Hegel, wants to understand rational boundedness as the product a distinctive form of social interaction involving mutual interpretation.  His approach can aptly be called an interpretationist one.

The question I’m concerned with here is whether these two approaches are just two different but mutually compatible ways of approaching the same phenomena, or whether there is a genuine conflict between the two approaches.  Brandom seems to think that the former is true, whereas Rödl is adamant that the latter is the case.  I’m inclined to side with Brandom here in thinking that the two approaches can be pulled together, and, after describing both approaches, I’ll attempt to do this.  First, let’s look closely at each of the respective approaches.

The Formal Level

The first explanation of rational boundedness we’ll explore is Sebastian Rödl’s.  We will call Rödl’s explanation a formalist one since he takes it to be true simply in virtue of the form of the concept of rational boundedness.  Rödl takes himself to be doing a sort of transcendental logic.  An investigation into the nature of rational boundedness, for Rödl, is an investigation into the nature of reasoning, and the way to investigate reasoning, he thinks, is by reasoning.  Accordingly, Rödl’s methods are entirely a priori.  The answer he comes up with is the following: Reasonsers like ourselves, through the act of reasoning, both conform to and represent things as conforming to an order of reason.  We conform to an order of reason in action by representing that action as conforming to an order of reason in thought.  The action and the thought, Rödl claims, are one in the same thing.  If Rödl’s account sounds unusual, that’s because it is.  On most traditional accounts of action, I think about what to do and then act.  On Rödl’s account, however, an action is an embodied practical thought.  The rest of this section is dedicated to spelling out this view.

The first thing we need to do in order to elucidate Rödl’s view is get a clearer sense on what he means by “order of reason.”  We should understand the concept of an order of reason by contrast to an order of nature.  An order of nature is a system of laws of nature to which physical, chemical, or otherwise natural objects and events conform.  Representing something as conforming to an order of nature gives us the ability to provide a naturalistic explanation, in which we explain some set of natural phenomena by unifying them under natural laws.  An order of reason, on the other hand, is the structure of a system of norms.  Beings that represent themselves as belonging to such a system bring their actions in accord with these norms.  Accordingly, if someone is bound by an order of reason, saying some action of theirs conform to that order functions as a causal explanation of it.  Whereas naturalistic explanations involve mere things conforming to an order of nature by mere nature, intentional explanations involve living agents conforming to an order of reason by way of reason.

Now we need to say a few more things about reasoning itself.  For Rödl, reason and self-consciousness are two sides of the same coin, so saying something about how he thinks about the latter is necessary to explain how he thinks about the former.  What distinguishes self-conscious awareness from immediate awareness of objects outside of myself is that I have self-conscious awareness of some object not by observing that object, but by being that object.  The first-person knowledge that comes by way of self-consciousness is what Rödl calls “spontaneous knowledge.”  This conception of spontaneous knowledge enables Rödl to give a distinctive account of the relationship between thought and intentional action.  His line of thought is as follows:

Thinking that I ought to do X in the course of practical reasoning is self-consciously representing it as a thing-to-be-done—it’s representing it as conforming to an order of reason.  Rödl wants to say that, in thinking the very thought which represents an act as conforming to an order of reason, I enact that thought.  Conclusions of practical thought, Rödl claims, are actions.  Thus, intentionally acting and representing ones actions as conforming to an order of reason are one in the same thing.  Because of this identity, I spontaneously know about my action by representing it in self-conscious thought as conforming to an order of reason.  I act by thinking a thought, and I know my thought just by thinking it. Causality of thought, according to Rödl, is its own kind of causality, and beliefs and actions are the sorts of things to which this kind of causality applies.  The order that structures thought is the form of the relationship between self-consciousness and its means of representation.  Because it is completely contained in the form of self-consciousness and its means of representation, it is apt to call this order formal, and it can be investigated a priori.  This formal order just is what Rödl calls, the “order of reason.”  It is what binds thought and action.

I find Rödl’s formalist explanation of rational boundedness to be rather elegant, but I think it leaves a lot of questions to be asked.  I’m left wondering: what is self-conscious thought?  Rödl is very clear about the formal structure of this thought, but he doesn’t give us any way of explaining it by appealing to anything other than self-conscious thought.  In fact, Rödl actively rejects this project. He endorses a thesis he calls “true materialism,” in which we ought to conceive of material reality not only as an object of receptivity but as an object of human spontaneity.  If the term “materialism” is supposed to be consoling to naturalists, I doubt that it is; I’m unsure what “material” even means at this point.  It seems that self-conscious thought, on Rödl’s view, is supposed to be some sort of sui generis substance.  It is a substance that I know of by having spontaneous knowledge of it—by being this substance.  But once again, I can’t help but asking, what is this substance, and why is there any of it in the first place?  Rödl doesn’t offer a form of explanation that can satisfy me here.

The Interpretationist Level

Let’s now turn to the explanation of rational boundedness offered up by Robert Brandom.  Like Rödl, Brandom is very influenced by the German Idealist tradition of Kant and Hegel.  However, unlike Rödl, Brandom also takes his project to be a continuation of the pragmatist tradition, both traditional American pragmatism of James and Dewey, and the more contemporary pragmatism of Richard Rorty.  It is from Hegel, I believe, that he draws his distinctive brand of interpretationism from which he is able to give an account of rational boundedness while (in his mind) staying true to the pragmatist tradition.

Reasoning, for Brandom, is constituted by engaging in a particular set of social practices.  Through some combination of biological dispositions and social conditioning, we get inculcated into social practices in which certain patterns of behaviors end up being communally treated as correct or incorrect.  These communally adopted attitudes for or against certain patterns of behavior institutes social norms, standards of correctness within a social practice.  Among these social norms are ones that license various practical inferences as good ones—if you’re entitled to do A, you’re entitled to do B; if you’re committed to doing C you’re not permitted to do D, and so on.  To reason is to operate in according with these communally endorsed social norms.  What Rödl would call the “order of reason,” on Brandom’s pragmatist view, is just the structure of the social norms that codifies these “good moves.”  Being rational, according to Brandom, is being “bound or constrained by these norms, being subject to the authority of reason.”

Now, it may seem like Brandom has run into a dilemma here regarding rational boundedness: if norms of rationality are socially instituted, how can they be genuinely binding?  What is it about the social institution of norms that makes it such that our actions must conform to them?  To see an answer to this question in Brandom’s work, we must appreciate the way in which Brandom’s view is a particular species of interpretationism.  The term “interpretationism” is often associated with Donald Davidson’s theory of meaning which explains meaning in terms of how one might construct a theory of meaning to provide a consistent interpretation the linguistic and non-linguistic behavior of a foreign language speaker.  Davidson’s interpretationism is what we might call a one-way interpretationism: the theorist interprets the speaker whose meanings are in question, but that speaker need not interpret the theorist as interpreting him in order for the theory to make sense.  On the other hand, Brandom’s theory of normativity (and meaning as well, for that matter) is what we can call a two-way interpretationism: it only holds up from within the context of mutual interpretation.  Norms are instituted through mutual interpretation, and, only in the context of mutual interpretation, can we view norms as genuinely binding on our actions.

For Brandom, norms themselves are not causally efficacious when it comes to binding our actions.  It is our normative attitudes, the interpretation of each other as being bound by norms, which has causal efficacy.  Still, Brandom thinks that we can only make sense of these normative attitudes by talking about norms that guide the adoption of those attitudes, so the normativity is conceptually irreducible on Brandom’s account.  To see how this sort of view is supposed to work, let’s look at an extended example with human agents who are significantly less conceptually sophisticated than ourselves: cavemen, let’s say.  If Yog the caveman interprets a deer as being bound by norms, he will have expectations regarding the deer’s behavior, and these expectations will show themselves in Yog’s behavior as he interacts with the deer.  For example, he might expect that, if the deer sees him coming, it will run away, and so he makes sure to hide behind the bushes on in his approach.  Yog’s interpretation of the deer as bound by norms has had a causal effect on his behavior.  Still this case does not show that Yog must understand the deer as genuinely bound by norms.  It is possible for us to think about Yog’s interpretation of the deer’s actions in terms of the alignment of various biological dispositions and predict the same results.  However, the same is not the case if Yog were to interpret another interpreter.

Let’s now look at such a case: Yog interprets Gor, another caveman, as bound by norms.  Like the deer, interpreting Gor as bound by norms gives Yog certain expectations regarding Gor’s behavior.  Unlike the deer, however, Gor also interprets Yog as being bound by norms, roughly the same norms that Yog is interpreting Gor as bound by.  Let’s suppose now, that, if Yog takes Gor to have violated a norm, he will hit Gor with sticks, and if Gor takes Yog to have violated a norm, he will hit Yog with sticks.  Since neither Yog or Gor want to be hit by sticks, this will lead both of them attempt conform to the other’s expectations by trying to behave in the way that he expects the other will be interpreting him.  The result of this two-way interpretation with the attempt to conform to the other’s expectations is a mutually reinforcing set of expectations that stabilizes behavior.  Remember from the last paragraph that these expectations intrinsically linked to normative attitudes, and so the behavior emerges as intersubjectively stabilized by these expectations must be seen as normatively guided.  There is no way to interpret the behavior non-normatively.  In these mutually reinforcing expectations, we must see Yog and Gor as genuinely bound by norms.

Brandom wants to say none of this needs to be explicit in the heads of Yog and Gor.  Such mutually reinforcing expectations among community members can exhibit themselves as norms implicit in practices.  By the time that that members of community become explicitly aware of the norms, representing them to themselves, they will already have been implicitly acting in accord with the norms for some time.  Explicit awareness of the norms emerges over the course of history in good Hegelian fashion, and Brandom’s own work is a contribution to this explicit awareness.  Explicit expressions of these norms, according to Brandom, constitute logic.  Logic is an expression of the norms by which we are rationally bound.

An Attempt to Collapse the Levels

Brandom’s explanation of rational boundedness that I discussed in the previous section is part of a much larger project pursued in Making It Explicit.  Crudely put, the project is to put forward a theoretical framework which allows us to understand the meaning of linguistic items in terms of their use.  For Brandom, language is fundamentally a set of social practices with a normative structure governing the various correct “moves” that one can make.  Within the context of this normative social practice, semantic content ends up being conferred; the moves of the practice end up being about things.  I’ve explained Brandom’s semantic theory in an earlier post, but the present point is this:  Brandom’s basic philosophical commitment that semantic concepts must be understood in terms of socially instituted normative ones precludes him from taking the concept of representation as theoretically fundamental in any sense.  He must explain how such concepts end up being applicable to structures of linguistic practice but are themselves inessential to its function.  This means that being bound by these norms cannot mean representing these norms as guiding one’s actions.

This is where Rödl thinks Brandom’s account must fall short.  Rödl claims that we can’t understand normative vocabulary without also understanding representational vocabulary.  For Rödl, being bound by a norm essentially means representing oneself as being bound by that norm.  Without an understanding of this representation, one cannot understand normative notions, and, with no understanding of the normative notions, Brandom’s use of normative vocabulary loses its sense.  The result, according to Rödl, is a bunch of misleading concepts of reasoning, inference, commitment, and entitlement, that, although they appear to be ordinary normative concepts, aren’t actually the concepts we’re familiar with.  If we try to think of reasoning apart from representation, our rational concepts all fall apart.  At best, we’re left with quasi-commitments, quasi-entitlements, but we don’t actually have any sense of these things, and so the theory can provide no explanatory illumination.

Rödl’s challenge is a serious one, and a serious attempt to answer it will go right to the heart of Brandom’s project.  Though Brandom has acknowledged the depth of Rödl’s challenge, I’m not aware of any place that Brandom has explicitly attempted to respond to it.  However, I think an attempt can be pulled from the resources Brandom provides in Making It Explicit.  In this section I’ll try to sketch such an attempt.

The ultimate goal of Making It Explicit is what Brandom calls “self-referential expressive completeness.”  Brandom is attempting to express how a member of a community which has the normative practices he specifies in Making It Explicit can achieve command of the expressive resources sufficient perform the very expression that Brandom performs in Making It Explicit.  Put a bit more colloquially, Making It Explicit is a book about what practices one needs to be engaged in in order to write Making It Explicit.  Brandom achieves his goal of self-referential expressive completeness just in case he is able to express the practices that makes his expression of those practices possible.  The final expressive resource that Brandom offers in Making It Explicit is the concept of representation.  Given that expressive completeness is his goal, it would be odd if Brandom introduced the concept of representation unless he thought that he needed to use it in order to put forward the theory in Making It Explicit.  I think Rödl makes it clear that he does need to use this concept.  Further, I think Rödl makes it clear how representation must be used:  Brandom’s expression of these normative practices, insofar as it is an explicit one, consists in representing us all as bound by the norms embedded in these practices.

Though Brandom doesn’t say what I’ve just said explicitly (or at least not in those terms), I think it’s perfectly compatible with his picture.  It is important to remember that the philosophical theory offered in Making It Explicit is essentially conducted from the point of view of an interpreter, and the interpreter himself is essentially embedded in the normative practices he is attempting to express.  As applied to the particular author of Making It Explicit, this is to say, Brandom is one of us, and his whole theory is conducted from within the discursive practice which he takes us all to be engaging in.  In Making It Explicit, Brandom represents us as bound by certain norms.  He then goes on to say that, if we represent ourselves as bound by those norms, we can understand this very act of representing each other as bound by norms. Saying that we “represent each other as bound by norms” is a way of talking about the convergence in mutual interpretation that we saw in Yog and Gor from within that system of mutual interpretation.  Expressing the web normative relations which confer semantic content is Brandom’s basic goal in Making It Explicit, but he fully realizes that expression can only take place from within that web of normative relations.

Now, if we keep all of this in mind, we can see something interesting happen.  If we are to be charitable in our interpretation of Brandom, then we must at least entertain a picture in which we represent ourselves as bound by the norms that he represents us as bound by.  Further, we should attempt to use the same set of normative concepts that Brandom is using to think about that representation.  However, in using these concepts to think about our own act of representation, we’re binding our thoughts under the very norms that Brandom is representing our thoughts as being bound by. Thus, in our very act of entertaining the representation, we must see ourselves as conforming to the norms that Brandom is representing us as being bound by.  If Brandom’s theory really is expressively complete, we cannot both understand Brandom and claim not to be bound by the norms he expresses.

To clarify that last point, let’s contrast it with a different example.  Suppose you say, “every person should eat three meals a day.”  I can hypothetically represent myself as being bound this norm while maintaining a certain sort of cognitive distance from it such that I’m not actually bound by it.  This is to say, I can imagine what it would be like if I were to take myself to be bound by such a norm without actually being bound by that norm.  However, in representing myself as bound by a set of norms that accounts for the very possibility of that representation, no such cognitive gap is possible.  Insofar as the concepts I employ to entertain the representation are founded upon these norms (and I represent them as such), then, in representing myself as bound by these norms, I cannot help but think that really am bound by them.   Thus, I cannot even entertain the thought of the representation without understanding myself as being bound by that representation of the norms.  Cognitively representing ourselves as being by these norms and practically taking ourselves to be bound by these norms are the very same thing. 

We are now in a position to bring this discussion back into contact with Rödl.  Let’s recall that, for Rödl, the distinctive feature of self-conscious thought is it takes place in an order of reason, a “formally represented order.”  With such an order, a subject’s action which falls under that order is identical with a subject’s thought that represents that action as falling under that order.  We can see that our reflections on Brandom fit this characterization in a peculiar way.  Practically taking ourselves to be bound by these norms in action is identical with our representing ourselves as bound by these norms in thought.  This “practical taking,” Brandom will want to say, is a particular sort of action—it is situating ourselves in the intersubjective normative space that Brandom calls “the space of reasons.”  Here, I believe, lies the root of Brandom’s disagreement with Rödl.  While, for Rödl, our thoughts and actions are inherently bound to the formally represented order of self-consciousness, for Brandom, self-consciousness is something we actively achieve: situating ourselves in the space of reasons is achieving self-consciousness.

Brandom wants to say that the norms have authority over us only by way of our acknowledgement of them as having authority over us—our taking ourselves to be bound by them.  Rödl objects that, if norms derive their authority from our acts of taking ourselves to be bound by them, then there is no way to think of those acts as guided by our representation of the norms.  However, our reflections on Brandom shows that there is a case in which this is not true: if cognitively representing oneself as bound by those norms and practically taking oneself to be bound by them one in the same, then the act of taking oneself to be bound by norms is guided by the representation of those norms.  This is true, even though the representation internal to the act.

The conclusions in the last paragraph perfectly fit the formula that Rödl gives us for self-conscious thought, and it is no coincidence: practically situating oneself in the space of reasons, we can now see, is an act of self-conscious thought.  In fact, we can say something even stronger: it’s the act of self-conscious thought, or, perhaps more precisely, it is a generalized formula for such acts.  It is possible to see every act of self-consciousness as an act of practically situating oneself in the space of reasons by representing that act in thought as conforming to the order of that space.  In acting by representing the normative order into which my act fits (seeing myself as committed to performing such an act, for example), and representing myself as responsible for the action, I situate myself in the space of reasons, both cognitively in thought and practically in action.  As we think such thoughts and performs such acts, we achieve self-consciousness.  Thus, self-consciousness comes to fruition over time, through the course of human history.  Thinking of self-consciousness in this diachronic way is exactly the result that should make both parties happy if they do indeed wish to stay true to the spirit of Hegel.

The puzzle of rational boundedness has turned out to be a puzzle regarding the nature of self-consciousness.  In Hegel’s famous chapter on self-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the issue of two conflicting conceptions of self-consciousness only gets resolved through a fight to the death.  If Rödl and Brandom’s disagreement really were intractable, perhaps the only Hegelian resolution would consist in Brandom and Rödl fighting to the death.  Fortunately, such a fight shouldn’t be necessary; Brandom and Rödl’s respective approaches can be united under a single conceptual framework—a Hegelian one.