Woodbridge Lectures

Bob Brandom gave his Woodbridge lectures at Pitt these past two days. The lectures are entitled “Animating Ideas of Idealism: A Semantic Sonata in Kant and Hegel,” and they presented a retrospective reading of a few trends in Kant and Hegel. Unsurprisingly these were the trends which have the greatest relevance to Brandom’s own project. I asked a question in response to the third lecture that I want to go over. In particular, I detected a tension between three of Brandom’s ideas, though what I’ll present here goes beyond what I said in the question, and I might get the order of what was said when wrong (this is a worry, not a transcript).

Caveat emptor, I’m no expert on German Idealism. Much of the discussion is couched in Bob’s idiosyncratic vocabulary, but sadly I’m no expert at that either!

  1. Brandom doesn’t think there’s any notion of narrow content worth having.
  2. What Brandom gets from Hegel is a new notion of determinateness in content, where determinateness is a criterion for being conceptual content, or at least being conceptual content in good-order (I’m not clear which it is). The Kant-Frege notion of determinateness requires that a concept must settle, for every possible object, whether it applies to that object or not. The Hegelian notion of determinateness differs in two regards: first, we will only have a number of cases previously settled by practice, with some others trivially following as consequences. But certain others will be hard cases, ones where there is no strict guideline from previous cases that tells us how to judge. By way of analogy, think of judicial practice–on one way of viewing that practice, judges are both bound by previous decisions, but also adding to the stock of precedent with each new decision, and those decisions are not fully determined by previous ones. Second, determinateness fully appears only retrospectively–from our vantage point, we can see previous members of our community as having used the selfsame concepts as the ones we use, even though they were not capable of making the distinctions embedded in those concepts. This is true even though they had not yet made some of the decisions about application which shaped the contemporary concept. There are strong echoes of Wittgenstein here–were it not for the title, I might have thought this a lecture on the rule following considerations. The really crucial bit, even more important than the retrospective characterization of content is the idea that there is never a fully determinate set of concepts in the Kant-Frege sense. Each conceptual framework that we adopt will always be subject to revision and updating. If we simplify by dropping Hegel’s holism about content, we can say that each framework will be changed not only by revising particular judgments, but also by revising the concepts that feature in those judgments (Bob infuriates the Germans by comparing Hegel to Quine). There is no Peircean end of inquiry.
  3. (This point may or may not add something to the tension). In considering externalist thought experiments, the determination of content is only retrospectively visible. The determination of content now is dependent on things which can only transpire in the future, if they transpire at all. We attribute beliefs using the ‘water ‘concept to individuals in the past, despite the fact that they lacked the chemical knowledge necessary in order to make the relevant distinctions (between H20 and XYZ). However, we take it that given their belief that they’re referring to a natural kind, they are capable of making that distinction, should their knowledge be amplified, and we thereby find it reasonable to attribute the concept ‘water’ to them.

The issue that I have is that making sense of the conceptual content which is non-determinate when considered without its future development requires us to appeal to something like narrow content. Brandom did not find any particular problem here. After all, the determinateness of the old concept is secured in virtue of our attributing contents which we can recognize as wide to the ancestral concept users. So far so good for him.

My follow-up noted that the content that we’re able to attribute with full “semantic self-consciousness” is still narrow content (or something like it). Given the pervasiveness of wideness in conceptual content, our concepts are themselves presumably determinate only in virtue of distinctions which we have yet to recognize. Recast in the quasi-Hegelian jargon, the determinateness of our concepts is visible only in the retrospective view of concept users more sophisticated than we. But now, if the threat of regress is to be avoided, there must be a Peircean end of inquiry where concepts are fully determinate in the Kant-Frege sense–that is concepts are used by creatures who have mastered all the relevant distinctions.

Brandom responded to this, and Nicholas Rescher interjected a cautionary note about Bob’s treatment of de dicto/de re attributions. Unfortunately, my dialectical skills were so taxed merely asking my question and a follow-up that I didn’t see the account that emerged.


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