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Carnap, Brandom, and the “myth of the given”

Recently I came across the following from Robert Brandom (he’s talking about “representationalism” and Rorty’s attack on it):

The proximal difficulty is that thinking of our broadly cognitive and intentional relations with our environment principally in terms of our representing things as being thus and so (thinking of the mind as a ‘mirror of nature’) requires, he thinks, commitment to various kinds of epistemically privileged representations.  Prime among these, in their 20th-century analytic form, are what is given in sensory experience and cognitively transparent meanings. . . Representations of these sorts are understood as having a natural or intrinsic epistemic privilege so that their mere occurrence entails that we know or understand something. But there is no way to cash out this sort of intrinsic authority in terms of the practices of using expressions or interacting with each other or our world. . . [In] ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’ (1956) Sellars mounts a broadly pragmatist critique of the idea of things known simply by being in some sensory state, and in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism’. . . Quine does the same for the idea of things known simply by our grasp of our own meanings. (Rorty took it as persuasive evidence of how hard it is fully to disentangle ourselves from this particular tar baby that Sellars seemed to hold on to a version of the analyticity Quine had discredited, and Quine remained committed to the sensory given.  Carnap, of course, embraced both forms of givenness.)  (Huw Price et al. Expressivism, Pragmatism, and Representationalism, p. 92)

Carnap at no point in his career, even in the Aufbau, “embraced” either form of “givenness.”  Brandom’s gratuitous assertion here is partly just passive acceptance of unexamined philosophical tradition; the historical scholarship of Michael Friedman, Alan Richardson, Richard Creath, and many others over the past couple of decades has put this mythology to rest, and I don’t need to reiterate all that here.  But it occurs to me that there is also a more basic misunderstanding about where Carnap is coming from that makes it hard for people like Rorty and Brandom to locate him in their landscapes.

What I’m thinking of is what Dick Jeffrey called the “voluntarist” element in Carnap’s thought, early and late.  Even in the first sketch of the Aufbau, a 1922 typescript called “From the Chaos to Reality [Vom Chaos zur Wirklichkeit]” Carnap makes clear, as of course in the published book, that it is not a matter of anything being given in sensory experience, it’s a question of deciding what should serve as our “given” (i.e. deciding what to use as the building blocks) for the purpose of building up a “reality” (yes, that’s how he puts it — not “reality” but “a reality,” since there were of course many different realities one might want to build up from whatever building blocks one decides on, e.g. the “reality” of everyday life or the very different “reality” of physical theory).  And the point of the book is not to justify any particular basis or “reality” (no longer called that in the published book, except in the passages where he specifically indicates he’s going to use “realistic language” for readers who prefer that), but to ask “how do we get from whatever building blocks we choose to something vaguely like the world of science or everyday life?” In short, it’s a matter of “how do we get there from here?” — not “how do we arrive at scientific reality from a privileged source of knowledge?”  There is nonatural or intrinsic epistemic privilege” in Carnap of the sort Brandom alludes to (or portrays Rorty as alluding to).

Nor is there any privileged access, of course, in the case of “things known simply by our grasp of our own meanings.”  Carnap was entirely clear that analyticity is not something that “exists” out there (or in natural languages) in some sense; it’s entirely something we make up, just as we make up the definitions in a legal contract.  We stipulate, in the text of the contract itself, that the expression “the Supplier” (defined terms in contracts are usually capitalized) shall refer to one of the signatories of the contract, or to some specific other person or company, and from that point on in the contract, that expression refers to that person. No one would dream of challenging such definitions in court, unless it turned out later that one was ambiguous in some unforeseen way.  But although contracts are designed to foresee as many problems as they can, the degree of precision in the definitions is very ad hoc, and far from uniform; they’re as precise as they need to be.

The legal profession and the legal system in which it operates, omnipresent in our social and political life, must surely be admitted to rank among “the practices of using expressions or interacting with each other or our world,” and they embrace a strong conception of analyticity of precisely the kind Quine “discredited” (according to Rorty and Brandom), and of precisely the kind Carnap also embraces.

So Carnap never embraced either of the forms of “givenness” Brandom has in mind; the final sentence of the above quotation from Brandom is false.

4 thoughts on “Carnap, Brandom, and the “myth of the given”

  1. Thank you for this blog. You’ve managed to entirely change my thoughts on Carnap. It’s difficult to see him as anything but Quine’s foil in the prevailing climate these days, but it’s nice to learn that there is more to his philosophy than the going narrative lets on. Posts like this are especially interesting to me, as my own work is closely connected to these issues in language and epistemology, and I’m finding Carnap’s views to be of more interest than many of the thinkers in the era after Quine and Sellars.

    1. I’m pleased it’s been of some use! Thanks for taking the time to comment; it’s nice to know the blog is being read by others than the usual Carnap-obsessives!

  2. Thanks a lot for this post.

    I have recently been working on N. Goodman’s relationship with C. I. Lewis (the former broadening the latter’s pragmatism while eradicating any reference to the “given”), and got interested in the kind of epistemic foundationalism Goodman challenges (whose foundationalism is it exactly?).

    In their monograph (Nelson Goodman, Acumen: 2006), Cohnitz and Rossberg deal with the issue whether Carnap’s Aufbau is the target of Goodman anti-foundationalism (in his PhD dissertation, and thereafter in the Structure of Appearance), and convincingly conclude it is not. Their argument is pretty close to yours, or at least points in the same direction – so I thought you might be interested.

    Here is a first quotation:
    “Although Goodman’s work is usually classified as being an anti-foundationalist version of Carnap’s project, Carnap and Goodman in fact agreed on many more issues than is usually recognized. In fact, the main characteristics of Carnap’s philosophy of the 1930s also characterize Goodman’s philosophy:
    ● the methodological outlook of constructionalism;
    ● an anti-foundationalist epistemology;
    ● the emphasis on multiple systems and starting-points adequate to their respective purposes (i.e. methodological and ontological pluralism);
    ● the view that what are often taken as “ultimate” metaphysical questions are pointless except when relativized to a system (i.e. metaphysical and ontological relativism).” (Cohnitz & Rossberg: 99)

    They later on insist on Carnap’s notion of constitutional system and emphasize that a constitutional system “need not mimic the actual process of knowledge acquisition”:
    “A constitutional system is a rational reconstruction of our intuitive constitution of the world. It operates with fictitious assumptions and idealizations, which need not have counterparts in actual processes. One such fiction is “the given”. That Carnap did not naively consider it an unproblematic basis of knowledge becomes clear from the fact that he also offered other possible bases (see Mormann 2000: 89–90). Such idealizations are not true or false, but are – in Goodman’s sense – more or less “right”, that is, more or less pragmatically justified. They have to be idealized to keep the constitutional definitions as clear as possible; if they serve this purpose they are “right”.
    Thus, there are two general points about constitutional systems that we should keep in mind:
    ● Constitutional systems are rational reconstructions. That is, they are undertaken after science is already done, so to speak, but do not try to build up a system of scientific knowledge independent of science.
    ● Constitutional systems are rational reconstructions. They do not aim to match the actual genesis of our knowledge. A constitutional system operates with idealizations and simplifications and is not affected by criticism that merely highlights that “really” the acquisition of knowledge proceeds differently.” (Cohnitz & Rossberg: 104-105).

    The more I work on those matters, the more I think Sellars was himself wrong (not to mention Brandom) when targeting Carnap or Schlick in his critique of the myth of the given (at least as far as epistemology is concerned; it seems to me that semantics is a somehow different story).

    I hope that (long) post was not completely irrelevant!

    All my best,

    1. Thank you for this interesting comment, which adds a dimension I was quite ignorant of, the Nelson Goodman viewpoint; I hadn’t heard of the Cohnitz & Rossman book. And you’re right, your quotations and paraphrases from it certainly do sound consistent with the Carnap I’ve been trying to get across (who in these respects differs little from the mainstream Carnap of the literature).

      If Cohnitz and Rossberg are right, then what do you think the answer (or an answer) might be to the question you start with, “whose foundationalism is it exactly [that Goodman is responding to]”? And since you bring it up, what foundationalism was Sellars responding to? As you know, I’ve argued that it was a rather garbled Carnap, but who do you think it is?

      And finally, why is semantics is a somehow different story? I’m intrigued. Do you think Sellars correctly discerned a conception of the given (other than the two that Brandom — incorrectly, we agree — sees in him) in Carnapian semantics? If so, I wonder whether Sellars’s objection couldn’t, after all, be articulated in Carnapian terms; but that’s another story; first one would have to get a sense of what you have in mind here.

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