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Huw Price on Robert Brandom

By my lights, then, Brandom’s attitude to metaphysics seems excessively irenic. I want to follow Hume, Ramsey, Ryle, Wittgenstein and Blackburn, in dismissing, or at best deflating, large parts of that discipline. Whereas Brandom — though engaged in fundamentally the same positive enquiry, the same pragmatic explanatory project — seems strangely reluctant to engage with the old enemy.

Nowhere is this difference more striking than in the case of modality. In my view, modality is the soft underbelly of contemporary metaphysics: the belly, because as Brandom himself notes in Lecture 4, so much of what now passes for metaphysics rests on it, or is nourished by it; and soft, because it is vulnerable to attack from precisely the direction to which the subject itself is most keen to be most receptive, that of naturalism. It seems to me that Brandom’s treatment of modality provides precisely the tools required to press this advantage — precisely the sharp implements we need to make mincemeat of modern metaphysics. Hence my puzzlement, at his reluctance to put them to work.

I had planned to end there, but the story is a little more complicated. Modern metaphysics turns out to have two underbellies, both of them soft —a fact which underlines what a strange and vulnerable beast it is, in my view. The second belly is”representationalism” — the fact that much of the subject is built on appeals to reference, and other robust semantic notions. Here, too, as I’ve said, I read Brandom as a somewhat ambiguous ally of the traditional pragmatist attack. On the one hand, he offers us profound new insights into how to do philosophy in another key; on the other hand, as the remark I quoted from Lecture 6 indicates, he sometimes seems to want to get out of it some pragmatic substitute for platonic representation — some surgery which would reconstruct the referential belly of the beast, as it were, in a new and healthy form. Once again, I think that that’s the wrong move. The twobellied beast should simply be put out of its misery, and no one is better placed than Brandom to administer the coup de grâce.

Huw Price, Brandom and Hume on the Genealogy of Modals

I have to say, those are pretty much the two things that got me out of analytic philosophy: modal metaphysics and the sort of reference it requires not to be specious. What’s strange is that there seemed to be so much progress was being made against them in the middle of last-century, before a growing backslide starting around 40 years ago. Or to put it analogically, if Wittgenstein was FDR, then Brandom is Bill Clinton.

1 Comment

  1. Surely this overstates the influence of Brandom (and omits the fact that it’s been nothing but Reagan since Truman, practically).

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