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Concepts, Communication, and the Relevance of Philosophy to Human Rights: A Response to Randall Peerenboom

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2005
pp. 320-324 | 10.1353/pew.2005.0003

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Concepts, Communication, and the Relevance of Philosophy to Human Rights:
A Response to Randall Peerenboom

Randy Peerenboom has paid me the enormous compliment of thinking it worthwhile to engage in sustained, critical dialogue with my book. In this response to his review essay, I attempt to return the compliment. I focus on issues surrounding concepts and communication, since that is where Peerenboom puts his emphasis. Near the end, I look at what is at stake in our discussions of Raz, touch on the question of judgments and objectivity, and close with some thoughts about the relevance of history to my goals in the book. [End Page 320]

At the heart of Peerenboom's critique of my account of concepts and communication are two concerns. First, he worries that I do not "provide a satisfactory answer to the questions of how to determine whether we are dealing with a single concept or discourse or multiple concepts or discourses." Second, he suggests that my entire discussion of concepts, "while interesting academically, at least for those with a taste for philosophy, diverts attention from the real issues." I will begin with the first. A valuable result of Peerenboom's essay is that it helps me to see where I have not made myself as clear as I would have liked to. At various points in the book, I raise the issue of the normative nature of questions like those Peerenboom has posed (see, e.g., pp. 27 and 32), but this is clearly something that needs more emphasis. Asking what a word means, or whether two people share a concept, or, for that matter, where the boundaries of a discourse lie are never simple, descriptive questions. These are normative questions, which always receive normative answers. By "normative," I mean that the questions and their answers are prescriptive for those in my shared community. When someone says "we mean such-and-such by that word," the "we" is crucial: it is saying that people like us, in some respect, ought to talk this way. Thinking about language in normative terms permeates Brandom's approach. He writes, for example: "When the prosecutor at Oscar Wilde's trial asked him to say under oath whether a particular passage in one of his works did or did not constitute blasphemy, Wilde replied 'Blasphemy is not one of my words.'"1 Wilde recognized, that is, that using the word "blasphemy" brought with it certain commitments that he—and other like-minded individuals—ought to reject, even if he were to deny that a particular passage was blasphemous.

So far so good. But Peerenboom sees a tension between what looks like a community-based definition of concepts—perhaps all Chinese ought therefore to share the same commitments?—and my endorsement of a holistic approach to meaning, according to which our individual webs of commitments always vary from one to another. This latter idea leads him to be puzzled about when two people can ever be said to share the same concept. He searches for a criterion for a sufficiently similar concept, wonders whether my talk of "keeping score" can provide such a criterion, and in the end decides that the choice of where to draw these lines is, in many cases, arbitrary. There is indeed a tension, and some arbitrariness, too, although not exactly where Peerenboom sees it. But none of this is problematic, I think, and in any case it emerges from the very complexity of our linguistic practice. Communities do not impose norms on us: we authorize the norms through the ways we speak, act, and react to others. "Authorize" is apt because it combines the ideas of creation and legitimation. Our perpetual roles as authorizers of a community's linguistic (and other) norms give us a certain amount of autonomy with respect to the norms, as well as explaining some variance, as we (consciously or unconsciously) push boundaries in one direction or another. At the same time, no one is a member of only one community. We interact with different groups at different times and in different ways, which puts the notion that we could be bound by the norms of a single...