Archives For The Pittsburgh School of Philosophy

In our first special issue, we address divergent views concerning the implication, scope, and cogency of the Pittsburgh School’s (i.e., Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell) application of ‘normative functionalism’.

The PDFs of each article give specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-Ab

I. An Introduction to the Pittsburgh School and Normative Functionalism

II. Normative Functionalism and Representation

III. Normative Functionalism and Agency

IV. Normative Functionalism and Reference

V. Normative Functionalism and Rhetoric

Author Information: Frank Scalambrino, University of Dallas, Texas, scalambrinof9@gmail.com

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Scalambrino, Frank. 2012. “Tales of the mighty tautologists?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 83-97.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-Ca

Abstract

There is supposed to be deep agreement among the work of Wilfrid Sellars, Robert Brandom, and John McDowell in regard to normativity. As a result, according to Robert Brandom (2008), and echoed by Chauncey Maher (2012), “normative functionalism” (NF) may refer to a position held by Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell, i.e., “The Pittsburgh School” of philosophy. The standard criticism of the various forms of this normative functionalist position points out the inconsistency in the commitment of normative functionalists to both metaphysical realism and psychological nominalism. Yet, the inconsistency between metaphysical realism and psychological nominalism may be difficult to see until the relation between normativity and perception is clarified. To this end, in this article I discuss the role of habit in perception. Normative functionalists aspire for a sort of pragmatism between the horns of psychologism and pan-logicism. However, once a discussion of habit in perception reveals a kind of relation between an agent and its environment that exceeds the inferential capacity of normativity, the normative functionalist position seems tautological. Put more specifically, the NF thesis may merely be claiming that the inferential sort of normativity which governs rational synthetic processing of experience is an inferential sort of normativity governing rational synthetic processing. The revelation of such a tautological grounding should be sufficient evidence for the Pittsburgh School to consider re-working its understanding of the functionality of normativity; for example, regarding claims such as: “In an important sense there is no such boundary [between the discursive and non-discursive], and so nothing outside the realm of the conceptual” (Brandom 2000, 357). This discussion should be, at least, valuable as a supplement to the standard criticism of NF or in regard to the Pittsburgh School’s avowed relation to G.W.F. Hegel.

“[A] tree or a rock can become subject to norms insofar as we consider it as engaging in social practices.” [1] — Robert Brandom

I. Introduction

The “Pittsburgh School” of philosophy refers to the work of Wilfrid Sellars, Robert Brandom, and John McDowell from the University of Pittsburgh. And, there is supposed to be “deep agreement” within the Pittsburgh School regarding normativity (cf. Brandom 2008, 357; cf. Maher 2012). “Normative Functionalism,” then, refers to the philosophical position indicated by the deep agreement among these various Pittsburgh School understandings of normativity. So, how may the position of normative functionalism (NF) be characterized?

Consider Brandom’s characterization from his Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas (2009),

The synthesis of a rational self or subject: what is responsible for the [normative] commitments … has a rational unity in that the commitments it comprises are treated as reasons for and against other commitments, as normatively obliging one to acknowledge some further commitments and prohibiting acknowledgement of others [Brandom’s emphases] (Brandom, 2009, 14).

It is as if the meaning of an experience for an agent depends on its relation to the norm-governed network, i.e., a space of reasons, in which it functions as an assertion. And, according to Brandom: “This is Kant’s normative inferential conception of awareness or experience” (Brandom 2009, 14). Further, in his book The Pittsburgh School of Philosophy (2012), Chauncey Maher explains, “the big idea is that the meaning of a term or a whole sentence is its norm-governed [emphasis added] role in rational conduct, broadly construed to include perception, thinking, speech, and deliberate action” (Maher 2012a, 5). Ultimately, in this article, I will argue that the domain of experience the Pittsburgh School considers norm-governed is too widely construed in regard to perception. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Willem A. deVries, University of New Hampshire, willem.devries@unh.edu

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

deVries, Willem A. 2012. “Sellars, Realism and Kanitan Thinking.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 57-67.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-BA

This essay is a response to Patrick Reider’s essay “Sellars on Perception, Science and Realism: A Critical Response.” Reider is correct that Sellars’s realism is in tension with his generally Kantian approach to issues of knowledge and mind, but I do not think Reider’s analysis correctly locates the sources of that tension or how Sellars himself hoped to be able to resolve it. Reider’s own account of idealism and the reasons supporting it are rooted in the epistemological tradition that informed the British empiricists, rather than in the metaphysical reasons that ruled within the German tradition from Leibniz through Hegel that has much more in common with Sellars’s position. Thus, Reider takes Sellars’s notion of picturing to be just another version of the representationalism that has dominated the Anglo-American tradition since Locke, whereas, in my view, because picturing is a non-semantical relation, it is an important ingredient in naturalizing the coherentist theories of the idealists.

Section I

Reider starts off, appropriately, with a discussion of analogy and science in Sellars’s thought. The target here is correct, but the discussion goes awry in some important ways. This is most directly seen in Reider’s speaking as if Sellars wants to exploit something like a Thomistic “analogy of proportion,” when, in fact, Sellars is claiming that the kinds of analogies he’s exploiting, unlike the Thomistic version, offers us “new determinate concepts” [my emphasis], rather than an allusion to something of some general nature whose specific reality remains beyond our ken.

Granted, there is something like a Thomistic analogy of proportion in play when, in the midst of his analysis of perception, Sellars tells us that “sheer phenomenology or conceptual analysis takes us part of the way” in understanding sensory episodes, namely, “to the point of assuring us that

Something, somehow a cube of pink in physical space is present in the perception other than as merely believed in (SSOP §26: 89).”

This result yields, like a Thomistic analogy of proportion, a highly indeterminate concept of what is present to us in the perception: something that is somehow a colored, shaped object in physical space. However, for our purposes the main point is that scientific theorizing goes far beyond this; eventually, it will develop a determinate conception of what is present in the perception and how it can manage to be colored and shaped, that is, what properties it has that are counterparts to the properties of the physical objects that normally cause such sensory states. This will be a family of determinate concepts of sensa.

There are two significantly different forms in which Sellars thinks analogies can lead to new determinate concepts. One is a matter of analogical relations between sets or families of concepts. Scientists use such analogies to generate new conceptual schemes that might prove explanatorily useful and be subject to empirical test. So, for instance, around the turn of the 20th century, after the discovery of the electron, J. J. Thomson proposed the “plum pudding” model to explain the structure of the atom, which was fairly quickly replaced by the Rutherford “planetary” model, which was then quantized by Bohr. Analogies to plum puddings and solar systems enabled scientists to think about the objects they were investigating and the principles that might explain their behavior by using concepts of domains with which we were already familiar. This facilitated the development of new tests that drove the scientists to new models. Sellars has this kind of analogy in mind when he argues, as he did in so many places, that our mentalistic concepts are formed by means of such an analogy, and in fact, by two different analogies. One likens our intentional states to episodes of ‘inner speech’, the other likens our sensory states to ‘inner replicas.’

The second significant form of analogy that Sellars considers is based on an isomorphism between two domains of objects and their relations (as opposed to concepts and their relations). When the objects and their relations in one domain bear a useful isomorphism to those in some other, nominally different domain, Sellars often speaks of “counterpart properties and relations.” We can find at least two or three different places where Sellars claims that such an isomorphism plays an important role. One is in the analysis of the sensory domain, where our sensory states exhibit counterpart properties to those exhibited by the manifest image sensory objects they are typically caused by, and are arranged in a scheme that involves counterparts of spatial and temporal relations (SM I ¶74). The other is in Sellars’s difficult notion of picturing. Some tokens of a linguistic type (what Sellars calls a “natural linguistic object”) picture some objects in nature in virtue of participating in a complex system of such natural linguistic objects that, in virtue of an unimaginably complex projection relation, is isomorphic (in certain respects) to the worldly objects thus pictured. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Tom Rockmore, Duquesne University, rockmore@duq.edu, Tom Rockmore: Wikipedia Entry

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Rockmore, Tom. 2012. “The Pittsburgh School, The Given and Knowledge”. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 29-38.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-Ak

Abstract

The Pittsburgh School, aka the Pittsburgh Hegelians or as the Pittsburgh neo-Hegelians, is often associated with Sellars, McDowell and Brandom. The views of the Pittsburgh School arise on the heels of Sellars’ rejection of the given, but differ in important ways. The difficulty, if one turns away from the given, lies in justifying objective claims to know. I argue that neither Sellars, nor Brandom, nor McDowell successfully justifies claims to know. I further question their supposed Hegelianism. Hegel is a constructivist in that he follows Kant’s claim, which is central to the Copernican revolution, that we know only what we in some sense “construct.” Unlike Hegel, the Pittsburgh “Hegelians” are not constructivists in terms of the letter or even the spirit of their views.

The Pittsburgh School aka the Pittsburgh Hegelians or as the Pittsburgh neo-Hegelians, is often associated with Sellars, McDowell and Brandom, but oddly not with Rescher, who is arguably closer to idealism, hence, since Hegel is an idealist, closer to Hegel.[1] The Pittsburgh School is sometimes understood to feature normative functionalism. Normative functionalism is a distant variation on the Kantian theme of categories. At stake is the nature and role of concepts after Kant, as well as the problem of knowledge if, in isolating spontaneity from receptivity, one gives up empiricism to justify cognitive claims.

Functionalism, which goes back at least to Aristotle, is usually understood as the doctrine that a mental state depends on its function or role in a wider system. The term “normative functionalism,” which is employed in several fields, including at least sociology and philosophy, has no standard philosophical meaning. In the Pittsburgh School, normative functionalism belongs to the effort to work out an approach to knowledge after the so-called given.

At least initially, “functionalism” may be defined as the view that to say that a word has a certain meaning or that a thought has content is to say that the word or thought has a certain functional role in a system of some kind. Normative functionalism gains traction for the Pittsburgh School in the discussion through the supposed relation to the given. The idea of the given, which is now firmly identified with Sellars, was anticipated earlier by others, for instance C. I. Lewis, who, in Mind and the World Order, draws attention to a distinction between the given or immediate sense data about which one cannot be mistaken, the interpretation of the given, and the concept through which we interpret it.

I believe no one can say with certainty precisely how Sellars understands the given, though it is at plausible that he intends to counter Lewis and others committed to empiricism. Moore and Russell, the founders of analytic philosophy in England, were broadly empirical thinkers. Sellars’ attack on the given loosely belongs to the analytic attack on empiricism underway roughly since the later Wittgenstein. The analytic turn against empiricism featured in recent analytic philosophy was anticipated in Kant’s critique of Humean naturalism. For naturalism, he substitutes a transcendental approach to knowledge. In relying on the supposed parallelism between judgments and categories, he proposes a transcendental deduction of the latter. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Patrick J. Reider, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, PJR23@pitt.edu

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Reider, Patrick J. 2012. “Normative Functionalism in the Pittsburgh School.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 16-28

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-AA

Abstract

Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell (whom Maher aptly calls the “Pittsburgh School”) have tremendous influence on the current shape of the analytic tradition. Despite their differing views on philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, and epistemology, their shared application of ‘normative functionalism’ highlights important similarities in their approaches to the aforementioned disciplines. Normative functionalism interprets the ability to form judgments, possess concepts, rationally defend or be critical of judgments, and consequently act as an agent, as largely guided by one’s responsiveness to norms. In this article, I argue for two related claims. First, I argue that the Pittsburgh School’s normative functionalism has germinated from the seed of Sellars’ ‘psychological nominalism’ and cannot be separated from it. Second, no philosophical question or approach can be free of competing claims as to the manner in which human beings think, communicate, act, and know. As a result, normative functionalism (insofar as it is a natural extension of psychological nominalism) is relevant to many philosophical disciplines, because it opposes nearly all the traditional views concerning how the human intellect comes into being and functionally operates.

Section 1

Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell (whom Maher aptly calls the “Pittsburgh School”) have tremendous influence on the current shape of the analytic tradition.[1] Despite their differing views on philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, and epistemology, their shared application of ‘normative functionalism’ highlights important similarities in their approaches to the aforementioned disciplines.[2]

As of yet, there is no definite way to refer to ‘normative functionalism,’ nor can one claim that its use is well established. Nonetheless, normative functionalism indicates a philosophical approach that will continue to have important repercussion in contemporary thought for two distinct reasons. First, via the considerable influences of Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell, the approach (if not the term) of normative functionalism is embedded in the most important issues facing one of the historically most prominent trends of the 21st century. Second, the theory of normative functionalism appears to maintain its explanatory power within a wide range of philosophical disciplines. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Chauncey Maher, Dickinson College, maherc@dickinson.edu

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Maher, Chauncey. 2012. “Normative Functionalism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 13-15.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-Ag

In The Pittsburgh School of Philosophy, [1] I use the expression “normative functionalism” to describe an important dimension of the views of Wilfrid Sellars, John McDowell, and Robert Brandom. Although I say a little bit there about why this label is apt, more can be said about it.

I use it to describe their views of the acts of asserting and believing, and their views of the content or meaning of what is asserted and believed in such acts. Roughly, an act of asserting should be understood in terms of its function or role in a norm-governed social practice; it alters the normative standing of the person performing the act, what she should (not) or may (not) do. In turn, acts of believing should be understood in similar terms, as altering the normative standing of a person in that very same social practice. That basic idea should then be extended to other speech acts (such as requesting or commanding) and other mental acts (such as intending or perceiving). And it is not just acts of asserting and believing that should be understood this way, but also the contents of what is asserted or believed. Roughly, what is asserted in asserting ‘That is red’ should be understood in terms of its function or role in a norm-governed social practice; roughly, the meaning of ‘That is red’ should be understood in terms of what rationally supports it (e.g., ‘That is crimson’) and what it rationally supports (e.g., ‘That is colored’).

I used “normative functionalism” to describe that dimension of their views for a couple reasons. Mainly, I wanted to highlight a connection between their views and an important and familiar view in philosophy of mind and language: functionalism. Here is a representative statement of functionalism in the philosophy of mind: “Functionalism is the doctrine that what makes something a thought, desire, pain (or any other type of mental state) depends not on its internal constitution, but solely on its function, or the role it plays, in the cognitive system of which it is a part. More precisely, functionalist theories take the identity of a mental state to be determined by its causal relations to sensory stimulations, other mental states, and behavior” (Levin, §1). Understood that way, functionalism focuses primarily on the individual organism or subject; and it conceives functions of mental states in primarily causal terms. But that is really just one species of functionalism. Instead, it can and should be seen in more generic terms. Roughly, in generics, functionalism about X would be the view that “what makes something [an X] … depends not on its internal constitution, but solely on its function” in some system of which it is a part. Sellars, McDowell and Brandom can then be seen as functionalists about mind language, emphasizing the social relationships of individual organisms (humans) and the norms governing those relationships, not just the causal connections between internal states of organisms and their environment, or between individual organisms. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Patrick J. Reider, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, PJR23@pitt.edu

Reider, Patrick J. 2012. Pittsburgh and the Analytic Tradition in Philosophy. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (9): 20-27

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-qb

Please refer to:

  • Maher, Chauncey. 2012. Reply to Reider. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (11): 16-23

The Pittsburgh School of Philosophy: Sellars, McDowell, Brandom
by Chauncey Maher
Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy

This article is a book review of Chauncey Maher’s text The Pittsburgh School of Philosophy: Sellars, McDowell, Brandom, published by Routledge. The first half of this article indicates the importance of the text’s theme, its intended audience, its content, and the manner in which it is successful. My explanation of the book’s content will additionally function as an overview of Sellars’, McDowell’s, and Brandom’s shared philosophical views. In the second half of this article, I offer a challenge to the text. This challenge also serves the dual function of being an introduction to the Pittsburgh School’s views on perception and knowledge.

The text’s theme and importance

Though the analytic tradition is varied, no one can deny that Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell hold a tremendous influence on an array of topics that are at the forefront of analytic thought — namely, epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of action.[1] While analytic philosophy is by no means the only philosophical tradition currently in practice, it has a powerful grasp on all English speaking schools (even if at times it is simply manifested as a rejection of the tradition). Hence, for anyone who is interested in a working knowledge of contemporary thought, the analytic tradition, in particular what Maher calls the Pittsburgh School (i.e., Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell), is undeniably one important slice of it.[2] Continue Reading…