Sunday, December 26, 2004
A linguistic argument
(1) Linguistic capacity precedes and causes self-consciousness, and so is the source of our ability to achieve reflective distance from our impulses.
(2) Language is inherently general.
Hence, (3) achieving reflective distance essentially involves conceiving oneself in general terms.
Korsgaard suggests this argument as the closing salvo of her critique of Thomas Nagel's account of reasons. Her fundamental objection to Nagel is that he assumes without argument that general reasons are the product of reflection. The linguistic argument is supposed to show how Nagel might try to close this gap by appealing to the foundational role that linguistic capacity plays in reflection.
Korsgaard's own discussion of the linguistic argument is brief and dismissive. She says that she is inclined to reject the first premise, but admits that she is, "somewhat at a loss about how to sort out such an issue."
For myself, I realize that the argument has some glaring flaws -- the second premise is far from clear and the inferential route from the premises to the conclusion is mysterious -- but I also think that the notions articulated in the first premise should be engaged rather than set aside. So here goes.
There are many questions to be asked about 1, but here is a place to start. What does it mean to say that linguistic capacity is the source of certain abilities? The right answer, at least as an interpretation of Korsgaard, begins something like this. It is agreed that acting on reasons, moral or otherwise, requires that we "achieve reflective distance from our impulses." Korsgaard and others have argued that we are capable of achieving such distance because we are self-conscious. But self-consciousness is itself a product of our linguistic capacity, so the kind of distance we can achieve will be determined by the operations of that capacity.
Given this elucidation, the premise would be rejected by Korsgaard for familiar reasons. Suppose that we were to discover that all of our moral judgments were caused by our linguistic situation and that this was the best explanation available for the various demands made on us by morality. We might then be in a position to ask whether we ought to follow those judgments, whether we ought to take them to be binding on us. If so, then the mere fact that these judgments derive from our linguistic capacity wouldn't be enough -- it wouldn't explain why we endorsed the judgments. If not, if the circle is so tight that we are incapable of doubting the judgments issued in accordance with our linguistic capacity, then we lack a capacity for self-reflection and fail to be agents. In either case the appeal to linguistic capacity doesn't appear to provide a foundation for reflective endorsement.
There is, however, another way of understanding the link between linguistic capacity, self-consciousness, and our capacity to achieve reflective distance. The first step is to see that the priority of linguistic capacity means that all consciousness of self will be a linguistic consciousness of self. Another way of putting this is to say that there is a kind of distance from impulses built into any consciousness, and that this distance is constituted by the fact that consciousness is linguistic while impulses are not. Thus, the conscious consideration of an impulse requires that it first be framed linguistically, and (here comes the second premise) in doing so one imputes to it a degree of generality.
It may not be clear how this interpretation differs from the previous elucidation, so let me make things explicit. The point of departure lies in the fact that the second interpretation makes a claim about the contents of consciousness rather than merely about its causal origins. The claim is that consciousness is inherently linguistic consciousness and is, as such, bound as much by the limits of language as by any facts in the external world.
On this interpretation, much of the weight of the argument falls on the second premise. And even before contemplating questions of whether language really is general in the way required, and how one might argue that it was, one sees that familiar Korsgaardian objections lurk. For supposing that the second premise is true we face the same dilemma that ocurred with the causal elucidation of the first premise. Either the generality of language leaves room for reflection on reasons or it doesn't. If it does then generality isn't doing the refletive work and if it doesn't then we aren't agents. Either way we haven't arrived at a foundation for reflective endorsement.
This is enough to reject the second premise and the linguistic argument, but not enough to discredit the present line of thought. Rather than trying to formulate a revised argument, let me hazard a speculative comment that may illuminate the way forward. Korsgaard's demand is that normative commitment be grounded without being determined. What this means in practice is that the normative commitment must be chosen and that the choice must be one which an agent could not fail to make. In Korsgaard's Kantian hands this devolves into a commitment to one's own rational nature. She seems to understand the linguistic argument as a perversion of this thought, as imputing a commitment to a rational order which is outside the self and, hence, destructive of agency. If the advocate of the linguistic argument is to evade this charge then the first premise above cannot be asserted as a step on the road towards a ground for normative commitment. Instead, the point should be that linguistic consciousness has built into it just those procedures required to bootstrap us into ethical agency.
Here is a very rough indication of how such an account might go. Under the second interpretation, one of the implications of the fact of linguistic consciousness is that all of our thoughts about the world are descriptions. None of these descriptions constitute the last word, and some descriptions are always in competition with others. Getting around in the world requires that one adjudicate among descriptions, which requires applying standards for better and worse descriptions. Since there is no reaching beyond descriptions to the world, these standards can't be foundational in any straightforward way. Instead, the standards must be internal and, it seems, must have something to do with agreement among or compatibility with other descriptions. Details aside, the main point is that the operation of linguistic consciousness includes the application of normative standards which are not themselves grounded in anything beyond the contents of the agent's mind. Further argument would then seek to show that the notions of better and worse have enough normative content to provide the basis for recognizably moral reasoning.