In one of his favorite examples, Robert Brandom points out that while a parrot may very well respond differentially to colors, and even say “red” when presented with a red swatch, the parrot is nonetheless responding much as a thermometer does when it detects temperature changes and responds appropriately by turning on the heater. What is missing in both cases, according to Brandom, is the ‘practical mastery of the inferential articulation in which grasp of conceptual content consists.’ (Articulating Reasons 162). In other words, although the parrot can identify the swatch as red she cannot then go on and use this as a reason for inferring that it is colored, that it is not green, a squirrel, etc. A parrot cannot participate in the game of giving and asking for reasons, and thus they lack the use of concepts.
Integral to Brandom’s understanding of concepts is the further claim that each concept is necessarily related to other concepts, to the inferential web of premises and conclusions that connect one concept with another. As Brandom puts it, when it comes to the inferential connections that constitute conceptual content, a natural consequence is that ‘one must grasp many such contents in order to grasp any.’ To be able to use a concept one must already possess a host of other concepts, which leads to the question: from where do we get our use of concepts? How can we ever acquire the use of concepts if we must already possess them to use them? The answer for Brandom is that conceptual contents are ‘social achievements.’ The force of reasons that binds us to the inferential connections between recognizing and judging that a swatch is red and further judging that it is colored, not green, etc., is itself the result of rendering explicit the authority of socially sanctioned activities, an authority that legitimizes our uses as appropriate (à la Wittgenstein). ‘The conceptual faculty,’ Brandom thus claims, ‘is the faculty of grasping rules, of appreciating the distinction between correct and incorrect application they determine,’ and these determinations of correct and incorrect application derive, in the end, from the authority of socially approved practice, or forms of life as Wittgenstein put it. ‘This is why Brandom cites with approval John Haugeland’s claim, in the context of Haugeland’s discussion of Heidegger, that ‘all transcendental constitution is social institution.’ Brandom is thus a holist, as he avows repeatedly in his Tales of the Mighty Dead, and the whole that is most crucial for his project is the social whole; or, as Brandom tellingly titles the final section of his key work, Making it Explicit, ‘we have met the norms, and they are ours.’
It is clear that Brandom would have no issues with Hume’s example of the missing shade of blue. Since the application of concepts involves inferential ties to other concepts and judgments, and presupposes a holism as well, then the lateral relations of these inferential ties can provide the resources that would enable one to conceptualize the missing shade. It was precisely this holism and the lateral relations they entail that David Pears, in his critique of Hume, claims Hume needed to resolve adequately the problem of the missing shade of blue. Brandom would also no doubt argue that a parrot, since it lacks the use of concepts, would be unable to come up with the idea of the missing shade of blue. But Hume, as I discuss in earlier posts (see here and here), also does not think we would have a problem with the missing shade. There is evidence Hume may well have supported a form of social sanctioning to account for this. For instance, Hume remarked about how well the blind from birth poet, Thomas Blacklock, was able to describe things using colors. Hume theorizes that ‘Tis certain we always think in some language, viz. in that which is most familiar to us; and ‘tis but too frequent to substitute words instead of ideas.’ Rather than an actual grasp of the colors, Blacklock used the words as he had heard them used, in their socially sanctioned way, and was thus able to ‘substitute words instead of ideas.’ But it would be a mistake to read Hume as a holist, and Brandom is certainly correct not to do so; however, I think it is equally mistaken to claim Hume is an atomist. On my reading of Hume as a hyper-realist, what is to be stressed is the multiplicity of impressions and ideas rather than the identity of impressions and ideas that would be in line with the one-multiple dualism (following Deleuze here on this point). The very identity of an impression as identifiable, such as a shade of blue, thus presupposes a reality that exceeds its identification and is irreducible to the holism of the social. A Humean hyper-realism does not found the normative force of the inferential articulation of concepts upon the holism of the social, but rather it is the reality that needs to be filtered and selected in order to construct a whole. This is why Deleuze, in reference to Hume, argues that ‘one can only invent a whole, since the only invention possible is that of the whole.’ From a hyper-realist Humean perspective, therefore, the social is not the whole that is the transcendental condition for the normative force of judgments (recall Haugeland: ‘all transcendental constitution is social institution’), but the transcendental condition is invention itself, including the invention of social institutions (which is key to understanding Deleuze’s reading of Hume’s political writings), and this invention is irreducible to any whole or to any predetermining identities. It should be noted that Timothy Williamson (in The Philosophy of Philosophy) takes Brandom to task for an analogous reason, though for a very different end and purpose, when he challenges the understanding-assent link that is crucial to inferentialism. If I understand that this is blue, then I must also assent to the judgment that it is colored, that it is not a squirrel, etc. Williamson claims that the case for such understanding-assent links, and for the social holism upon which they are founded, does not stand up to closer scrutiny. It would take another post to detail these arguments, but the Humean critique of Brandom that I have made can be found elsewhere in different forms.