- Inferential Man:An Interview with Robert Brandom
Analytic philosophy, at least to those in literary studies, seems an arid pursuit focused on technical problems of language, often conveyed in the mathematical symbols of formal logic. However, just as literary theory is quite different from common portraits of it, analytic philosophy differs from such images and has changed considerably since the days of Rudolph Carnap. Robert Brandom is an analytic philosopher, but while following in its rationalist tradition, he argues for a revisionary perspective, holding that we obtain meaning through inference rather than reference to a state of affairs. And rather than the compartmentalized arguments of much analytic philosophy, often captured in a single essay, he has aimed to construct a systematic philosophy, notably in his 741-page book, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (Harvard UP, 1994). Another aspect of his revisionary stance is bringing several unlikely bedfellows, such as pragmatism and Hegel, into his version of analytic philosophy. Instead of disregarding the history of philosophy, he frequently evokes “the mighty dead.”
Before he published Making It Explicit, Brandom gained a reputation from articles, unpublished papers, and talks as part of the “Pittsburgh School” of philosophy, which included colleagues Wilfrid Sellars, John McDowell, and others. He also co-wrote The Logic of Inconsistency (Blackwell, 1980), with colleague Nicholas Rescher. After Making Explicit, he explicated his system in Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism (Harvard UP, 2000). His next book, Tales of the Mighty Dead: Historical Essays in the Metaphysics of Intentionality (Harvard UP, 2002), gives his idiosyncratic tour through the history of philosophy, from Leibniz and Hegel through Frege to Sellars. Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism (Oxford UP, 2008), from the John Locke Lectures at Oxford, presents his contribution to the philosophy of logic. Two recent books, Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas (Harvard UP, 2009) and Perspectives on Pragmatism: Classical, Recent, and Contemporary (Harvard UP, 2011), gather some of his essays, and he is finishing a long-awaited volume on Hegel. [End Page 367]
In addition, Brandom has edited collections about Sellars and about his teacher Richard Rorty, including Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (Harvard UP, 1997), featuring Sellars’ essay of that title; Rorty and His Critics (Blackwell, 2000); and In the Space of Reasons: Selected Essays of Wilfrid Sellars (Harvard UP, 2007). There are already several books on Brandom’s work, including Jeremy Wanderer, Robert Brandom (McGill/Queen’s UP, 2008), Bernhard Weiss and Wanderer, eds., Reading Brandom: On Making It Explicit (Routledge, 2010), and more generally, Chauncey Maher, The Pittsburgh School of Philosophy: Sellars, McDowell, and Brandom (Routledge, 2012). See also Rorty’s essay, “Robert Brandom on Social Practices and Representations,” in Rorty, Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 3 (Cambridge UP, 1998).
Born in 1950 in New York, Brandom attended Yale (BA, 1972) and Princeton (PhD, 1976), where he worked with Rorty and David Lewis, and took courses with Donald Davidson, among others. He has taught at the University of Pittsburgh since, although he lectures frequently in the U.S. and Europe.
This interview took place on 9 July 2013 in Robert Brandom’s office at the University of Pittsburgh. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams, professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, and transcribed by Bridgette Jean Powers, an MA student in English at Carnegie Mellon.
What would you say, in a nutshell, is philosophy?
I think philosophy is about what it means to be a human being. Lots of things are about that, of course, but one dimension that philosophers are particularly interested in, that distinguishes us within the high culture, is how we are creatures who give and ask for reasons, which is something that I understand under the heading of inference. What is it for something to be a reason, and what it is for us to be creatures who give reasons, who care about reasons, who demand reasons? I am concerned to understand us as creatures defined by living in a normative space of reasons. These concerns overlap in the origins of philosophy—in ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle were fascinated...