Brandom's Model of Discursive Practice:
Defining the Normative Fine Structure of Rationality

Brandom summarizes his inferentialist model of discursive practice in three themes:

  1. Conceptual content is to be understood in terms of roles in reasoning rather than exclusively in terms of representation.
  2. The capacity for such reasoning is not to be identified exclusively with mastery of a logical calculus.
  3. Besides theoretical and practical reasoning using contents constituted by their role in material inferences, there is a kind of expressive rationality that consists in making implicit content-conferring inferential commitments explicit as the contents of assertible commitments. In this way, the material inferential practices [that] govern and make possible the game of giving and asking for reasons are brought into that game, and so into consciousness, as explicit topics of discussion [see 5: 61].

Brandom offers his model of discursive practice as one way of thinking about the discursive commitments that express claims, making it possible to define communication and justification in the normative terms of the interaction of inferentially articulated authority and responsibility. In asserting something we express our commitment, giving the content our authority, and licensing others to undertake a corresponding commitment to use as a premise in their reasoning. One essential aspect, then, is communication: "the interpersonal, intracontent inheritance of entitlement to commitments." Also, in making an assertion we undertake a responsibility to justify the claim if appropriately challenged, thereby redeeming our entitlement to the commitment acknowledged by the claiming; so another essential aspect of this model of discursive practice is justification:"the intrapersonal, intercontent inheritance of entitlement to commitments" [5: 165].

If a claim expressed by one sentence entails the claim expressed by another, we treat anyone committed to the first as thereby committed t the second. Brandom reminds us that although we typically think of inferences solely in terms of the relation between premise and conclusion (as a monological relation among propositional contents), in discursive practice, the giving and asking for reasons involves both intercontent and interpersonal relations. He stresses: "the representational aspect of the propositional contents that play the inferential roles of premise and conclusion should be understood in terms of the social or dialogical dimension of communicating reasons, of assessing the significance of reasons offered by others," rather than as arrived at noninferentially from sense perception [5: 166]. Peirce stresses a similar semeotic understanding of how his Existential Graphs should be applied dialogically [8; CP 4.429-431].

To apply Brandom's model in any context, he reminds us, we must select propositionally contentful expressions that can serve both as premise and conclusion in inference: what can be offered as, and itself stand in need of, reasons. Understanding or grasping such propositional content is a kind of know-how, or practical mastery of the game of giving and asking for reasons: being able to tell what is a reason for what, distinguish good reasons from bad. To play such a game is to keep score on what other players are committed and entitled to, as two dimensions of normative status. Understanding the content of a claim or a belief is being able to accord it proper significance, or "knowing how it would change the score in various contexts" [5: 165-66].

Along with these two sorts of normative status, we must keep track of their interaction: "Thus commitment to the content expressed by the sentence 'The swatch is red' rules out entitlement to the commitment that would be undertaken by asserting the sentence 'The swatch is green'." For each sentence there will be a set of sentences that are incompatible with it, and furthermore: "Inclusion relations among these sets then correspond to inferential relations among the sentences.That is, the content of the claim expressed by asserting 'The swatch is vermilion' entails the content of the claim expressed by asserting 'The swatch is red,' because everything incompatible with being red is incompatible with being vermilion" [5: 193-94]. Brandom summarizes, explaining in terms that correspond to Peirce's stages of inquiry [see CP 7.469-72, 1908].

The two sorts of normative status that must be at play in practices that incorporate a game of giving and asking for reasons, commitment and entitlement, induce three sorts of inferential relations in the assertible contents expressed by sentences "suitably caught up in those practices":

  1. committive (that is, commitment-preserving) inferences, a category that generalizes deductive inference;
  2. permissive (that is, entitlement-preserving) inferences, a category that generalizes inductive inference; and
  3. incompatibility entailments, a category that generalizes modal (counterfactual-supporting) inference. [see 5: 194]

These three sorts of inferential consequence relations are ranked: "all incompatibility entailments are commitment-preserving (though not vice versa), and all commitment-preserving inferences are entitlement preserving (though not vice versa)" [5: 195]. Then inheritance of commitment, inheritance of entitlement, and entailments according to the incompatibilities defined by the interactions of commitments and entitlements compose the three axes that "inferentially articulate" what Brandom calls normative fine structure of rationality, to describe the rational practices that include the production and consumption of reasons, such as in the Sellarsian game of giving and asking for reasons [see 5:195]. I will briefly introduce Brandom's notion of this game and then suggest how it might relate to doing Peirce's normative science.

The Game of Harmonizing Assertions

Peirce treated his pragmatism hypothetically (even suggesting that his EG could be used to prove that hypothesis [CP 4.533fn]), and Brandom treats his pragmatic linguistic rationalism hypothetically, proposing to explore its consequences in the context of the game. Peirce's pragmatism understands beliefs in terms of habits as conduct: " Now to be deliberately and thoroughly prepared to shape one's conduct into conformity with a proposition is neither more nor less than the state of mind called Believing that proposition, however long the conscious classification of it under that head be postponed" [CP 6.467]. " A belief is a habit; but it is a habit of which we are conscious. The actual calling to mind of the substance of a belief, not as personal to ourselves, but as holding good, or true, is a judgment. An inference is a passage from one belief to another; but not every such passage is an inference. ... In inference one belief not only follows after another, but follows from it" [CP 4.53].

Brandom begins with similar pragmatic understandings but elaborates in his rationalist terms: beliefs are commitments, commitments become concepts when they become explicit (by a rational process exemplified in the game of asking for and giving reasons) [see 5: 29]: concepts are norms (or socially articulated inferences), which we can express discursively as claims [see 5: 165]. Claims permit us to formulate commitments inferentially as assertions, to expose those beliefs that would otherwise remain implicit and unexamined in material concepts. In these logical formulations, we can then display the relevant grounds and consequences and assert their inferential relations, so that implicit inferential commitments in the content are open to challenges and demands for justification, "to groom and improve our inferential commitments, and so our conceptual contents" [5: 71. When we use a concept, in Brandom's terms, we make a commitment to an inference from its grounds to its consequences of application, which justifies our conduct: "Acting with reasons is being entitled to one's practical commitments" [5: 93].

My designation of the game as "Harmonizing Assertions" is partly suggested by Brandom's brief reference to Michael Dummett's idea that a theory of meaning should account for the 'harmony' between circumstances and consequences in the application of concepts as we ought to employ them, to maintain a conservative extension of the concepts used in a language [see 7: 124-32]. Brandom prefers to apply the term at the metalanguage level of semantic theory, to explicate the role of logical vocabulary in the clarification of concepts under change, as in the evolution of technical concepts. Here, Brandom warns that when we use logic to display the relevant grounds and consequences and to assert their inferential relations, we must realize that clarification will never achieve complete transparency of commitment and entitlement, which must serve as an ideal modeled on Socratic practice. Brandom realizes that his notion of harmony is more complicated to explain than either empiricist or rationalist epistemologies allow us to think: as among matters of fact (expression of commitment as belief) or as relation of ideas (expression of commitment as meaning). He insists that these two options should not be considered exhaustive, or leave us with the puzzle that harmony must either be compelled by the facts or dictated by freely chosen meanings [see 5: 72-76].

Brandom contrasts the simplistic "either/or" controversy in modern philosophy of rationalism vs. empiricism with his framework: conceptual contents are conferred on expressions when they are "caught up in a structure of inferentially articulated commitments and entitlements," which the game is conceived to embody.

[A]sserting a sentence is implicitly undertaking a commitment to the correctness of the material inference from its circumstances to its consequences of application ... Understanding or grasping a prepositional content is here presented not as the turning on of a Cartesian light, but as practical mastery of a certain kind of inferentially articulated doing: responding differentially according to the circumstances of proper application. This is not an all-or-nothing affair. ... Thinking clearly is on this inferentialist rendering a matter of knowing what one is committing oneself to by a certain claim, and, what would entitle one to that commitment. Writing clearly is providing enough clues for a reader to infer what one intends to be committed to by each claim, and what one takes would entitle one to that commitment. Failure to grasp either of these components is failure to grasp the inferential commitment that use of the concept involves, and so failure to grasp its conceptual content [5: 63-64].

In thinking critically, Brandom stresses, we must examine our idioms to be sure that we are prepared "to endorse and so defend the appropriateness of the material inferential transitions" implicit in the concepts we employ" they must not be allowed to remain curled up inside loaded phrases such as 'enemy of the people' or 'law and order'" [5: 70].

He concludes that the idea of a theory of semantic or inferential harmony makes sense only if it investigates the "ongoing elucidative process, of the 'Socratic method' of discovering and repairing discordant concepts." We can give the concept of harmony content only in "the process of harmonizing commitments, from which it is abstracted." He compares that process to judges formulating principles of common law: "intended both to codify prior practice, as represented by precedent, expressing explicitly as a rule what was implicit therein, and to have regulative authority for subsequent practice" [5: 75-76]. Expressing material inferential commitments explicitly has an essential role in the Socratic practice of harmonizing our commitments, and a commitment becomes explicit when it is "thrown into the game of giving and asking for reasons as something whose justification, in terms of other commitments and entitlements, is liable to question." Brandom stresses: "Any theory of the sort of inferential harmony of commitments we are aiming at by engaging in this reflective rational process must derive its credentials from its expressive adequacy to the practice before it should be accorded any authority over it" [5:76].

Engaging in the game is testing Brandom's pragmatic inferentialist hypothesis that we can "aim at harmonizing our commitments" by making them explicit in claims, remembering that claims (as assertions) are essentially performances that can both serve as and stand in need of reasons, and their propositional contents are essentially what can serve as both premises and conclusions of inferences [see 5: 189]. He argues for two defining features.

  1. A set of practices is recognizable as a game of giving and asking for reasons concerning assertions only if it involves acknowledging at least two sorts of normative status: commitments and entitlements, with some general structures relating them.
  2. The commitments and entitlements that specify proposition contents display a particular sort of objectivity: they are not about any attitudes of the linguistic practitioners who produce and consume them as reasons [see 5: 190].

Brandom recognizes the challenge of objectivity for his theory: "to start with a notion of propriety of assertion that is grounded in and intelligible in terms of the practice of speakers and audiences, and yet which is rich enough to find normative assessments that are objective in the sense of transcending the attitudes of practitioners" [5: 198]. Peirce's normative science has the same challenge (and ultimate purpose): how to arrive at authentic objectivity under the normative conditions of fallibility explained in his semeotic logic. We can understand the objectivity of our thought, Brandom explains, in the way the contents of our thought go beyond the attitudes of endorsement or entitlement which we have toward those contents, as an aspect of the normative fine structure of rationality revealed in the game.  We play the game of Harmonizing Assertions (keeping score on commitments, entitlements and their inferential relations) to reveal that normative fine structure of rationality making explicit what is implicit in conceptual content.

Sentences are the counters or markers that add toward a score. Producing or playing one is making an assertional move in the game, making a claim, which requires knowing at least some of its consequences (what other moves one is committing to). Each counter bears a player's mark, is on that player's list, or is kept in the pllayer's box, and each player' collection of these counters constitutes his score. Each player, at all times, must have a way of distinguishing those sentences he is prepared to assert, perhaps when prompted, from those he is not. And Brandom stresses that for a move to be recognized as an assertion, it must not be idle, "it must make a difference, it must have consequences for what else it is appropriate to do, according to the rules of the game" [5: 190-1]. Because assertions express beliefs, when a player plays a counter, or otherwise adds it to her score, that play commits her to playing others which add to her score.

Putting a sentence on your list of judgments, or putting it in your belief box, has consequences for how you ought, rationally, to act, judge, and believe. We may be able to construct cases where it is intelligible to attribute beliefs that are consequentially inert and isolated from any others, such as: "I just believe that cows look goofy, that's all." But nothing follows from that, no one is obliged to act in any particular way on that belief, and we could not intelligibly understand all our beliefs this way. If putting sentences onto a list (or into a box) never has consequences for what else belongs there, then the list ought not to be understood as consisting of all of someone's judgments or beliefs [see 5: 191]. Understanding the significance of an assertional move (which is a claim), requires that players understand at least some of its consequences, that they know what else (what other moves) they would be committing themselves to by making that claim. Brandom stresses the point that these are rational relations. (For further game specifications, see 7: chapters .)