Scorekeeping Semantics as a New Paradigm in Multiculturalist Political Theory (*)

Leonardo Marchettoni

In our multicultural societies we face the task of harmonizing several different practical codes: for example, as to the thorny issue of female genital mutilations, we have to decide whether apply our 'western' rules for which female genital mutilations are only a particular instance of personal injury or take into account traditional prescriptions that exert normative force over the individuals involved in such kinds of practices. Similar problems arise in relation to some aspects of family law as heritage or divorce. In such cases, it is difficult to imagine how to adjudicate on conflicting values. However, it seems important to provide a reassuring response to these requests without abandoning universal political principles. Why should we care about the universality of political judgements? The answer is simple: in order to make our societies stable we should make every possible effort to gain citizens' consensus. Therefore, it is important that our political judgements might be shared by everyone. When political judgements are not shared by everyone, we might expect that some may choose - given the opportunity to do so - not to conform to what those judgements require. Moreover, those who do not share judgements figuring as a premise in political arguments, will not share the conclusion of the argumentation either.

In addition, the need for the requirement of consensus is even stronger in our multicultural societies, where it can be fairly assumed that there are greater differences between individuals. Multicultural societies are societies in which we can find people belonging to different religious traditions, different cultures and that are grown up and are educated in different languages. Without some kind of universality in what pertains to the political realm, these people may fail to identify with political institutions. In other words, the political apparatus, and the political judgements that lie beneath it, must possess a force that makes them authoritative to individuals that bear a thin common identity as members of the political association. From these considerations the need for a kind of universality of political judgements follows. For these reasons cultural diversity represents a relevant problem in political theory and a number of issues have arisen within the last decades.

The plan of this paper is the following: in the first section I will briefly review some common liberal strategies dealing with cultural diversity and highlight some shortcomings commonly ascribed to such kind of approaches. In the second section I will introduce some aspects of the deliberative reaction to the failures of liberal politics on cultural differences. In the third section I will introduce some features of Robert Brandom's inferential semantics. Finally, in the fourth section I will attempt to show how Brandom's theory could assuage certain perceived awkward features of the deliberative model.


The first liberal response to the challenge of cultural pluralism is toleration. According to standard accounts, toleration can be defined as the attitude of non-interference with others' disapproved (but not universally condemned) voluntary behaviour. Political toleration, as a central pillar of liberal thinking, dates back at least to the first centuries of modern era (1) and has seen its affirmation in the context of religious wars. In fact it proved to be a reliable tool to demarcate the line between matters pertaining to the political order and those belonging to the private sphere. Its origin, however, also sets the limits of its contemporary usefulness: being linked to the state order and to the cohesion of a national majority, it cannot grant the inclusion of marginalized groups and therefore cannot avoid the threat of exercising an exclusionary power. (2)

Hence the contemporary attempts to revise the liberal strategy along several lines. One prominent response suggests to distinguish between reasonable and unrisonable doctrines, that is to say those that endorse toleration and those who do not. Moreover, citizens adhering to reasonable doctrines can support the same set of basic political principles for reasons internal to their comprehensive doctrines. (3) Alternatively, it has been attempted either to restore the motivations behind the traditional accounts of toleration by insisting that the state should preserve its neutrality among the different cultures that inhabit its soil, so restricting the range of tolerated behaviours to those actions that do not contrast with public interest, (4) or to extend the scope of toleration according to the principle that what happens in voluntarily chosen groups should not concern the wider society - provided that each group member can abandon her community. (5)

However, the most influential liberal solution to the problem of accommodating cultural differences is perhaps Will Kymlicka's theory of multicultural citizenship. (6) According to the author cultural minorities are entitled to retain their traditions in order to live autonomously - at least those traditions that do not entail internal restrictions for their members. To secure this outcome it is enough to grant them some group-differentiated rights that allow them to self-govern, to enjoy certain exemptions from citizenship obligations and to avail themselves of some special representation rights.


It is obvious that liberal strategies can be criticized for not providing a full recognition of the particularities involved in cultural identities. After all liberalism seems to value cultural identity only in an instrumental way: as a means to promote public order, or equality or autonomy. This feature is linked to another distinctive liberal trait: to consider only individuals and their entitlements. But it is arguable that our contemporary world requires more accurate an understanding of the ties that bind each individual to the community, so that belonging to a marginalized or oppressed group could not jeopardize the public standing of its members. This strand of thought is now a familiar one, after Charles Taylor's critique of liberalism for failing to offer recognition to the different groups, cultures and identities that often populate the same state. (7)

Deliberative accounts of democracy, at least since Habermas's, (8) have tried to take up this project, by insisting that democratic procedures must be open even to the members of cultural minorities. According to deliberative democrats, participants to a dialogical process are viewed as committed to responding to the reasons and arguments of others qua reasons and arguments. In this sense, public deliberation is critical, in so far as decisions and the reasons underlying them are arrived at through a process of critical reflection and viewed as subject to revision. Seyla Benhabib, for example, has maintained that "a deliberative model of democracy, based on discourse ethics, can offer compelling answers to the challenges posed by multicultural demands". (9) According to her, cultural disputes are regulated by the state, but without ending the dialogue and contestation that takes place in the public sphere. To this end, she argues that the dialogical practices must be informed only by the pragmatically incontestable principles of reciprocity and respect of the other participants to the dialogical process: participation in a deliberation must be governed by the norms of equality and symmetry.

This venture, however, must face several problems. To confine ourselves to a single issue: it is not clear whether it is possible to weaken the dialogical prerequisites to such an extent that permits the inclusion of everyone in the dialogical community. After all, the members of a small group could choose not to conform to the rules of public debate because they think that the criteria that select which arguments must be recognized as a valid move in the dialogical exchange are not neutral and can perpetuate the discrimination towards some communities. (10) This case exemplifies what James Tully has called the "unfreedom of assimilation". (11) Tully has highlighted that the members of marginalized groups are not free to challenge the explicit and implicit rules of public deliberation but must conform to them if they do not want to be excluded. In this way they gradually acquire some traits of the dominant identity: they cannot but assimilate the dominant language and practices of reasoning and so they are shaped by the culture of the members of the prevailing community.

Therefore, deliberative democracy cannot ensure that the dialogical model it embraces will allow the inclusion of culturally marginal groups in the public debate.


To sum up briefly: deliberative accounts of democracy should grant a wider inclusion of the subgroups that inhabit the public space in the discussion and adjudication of culturally sensitive issues. However, if the dialogical process is thought of as regulated by objective and transcendent rules, ultimately selected according to the standards of the dominant culture, it can fail to include those subgroups that refute the rules or choose not to conform to them. If the choice is between acquiring the identity of their masters and being excluded from the public arena, one cannot say that the dialogical model is designed to allow the participation of marginalized minorities.

In order to confront these issues it may be useful to turn one's attention to a different account of communication and normativity. Perhaps some ideas from the inferentialist semantics developed in the last fifteen years by Robert Brandom could assuage some of the difficulties arousing from the attempt to conflate diverse cultural traditions in a single dialogical process. This brief presentation does not permit to expound Brandom's theory into detail, however the concise enunciation of some particularly relevant points will be enough to prove my argument. (12)

The pragmatic and dialogical character of the theory

In the first three chapters of Making It Explicit Brandom describes a comprehensive image of the faculty that distinguishes human beings from merely sentient beings that Brandom calls Sapience: "Sapience of the sort distinctive of us is a status achieved within a structure of mutual recognition ... The specifically discursive character of that normative social structure ... consists in the inferential articulation of those recognitive practices". (13) Sapience, in turn, derives from the integration of three elements: the normative nature of intentional phenomena-that is the idea that one of our essential features as rational beings is the ability to use concepts to represent things in the world, and that the items by means of which we try to achieve this result can be classified as correct or incorrect representations, depending on whether concepts are properly employed in them; the inferential structure of conceptual content-that is the suggestion that the activity of representing things and states of affairs in the world is connected with an ability to pass from one representation to many others through inferential links that articulate the concepts employed; the pragmatic conception of semantics-that is the idea that grasping the conceptual content of our assertions requires knowing what role each assertion plays in the context of the global dynamics of our linguistic practices.

When applied to the specific case of linguistic communication and content, these ideas result in a conception of language as a set of practices that are so interrelated because each practitioner takes a normative stance towards the linguistic performances of the other members of the community, by drawing certain inferences from others' assertions. These attitudes of treating themselves and others as committed or entitled to certain further linguistic moves, in accord with the inferential links that tie past assertions to other propositions, and revising past expectations in light of new evidence, is what Brandom calls scorekeeping (hence the name "scorekeeping semantics"). The overall picture is one in which the rules that govern language games and conceptual contents supervene on the linguistic behaviours of the members of the linguistic community without being reducible to them.

The perspectival character of conceptual content

It is a central tenet of Brandom's semantics that conceptual content is perspectival: "Conceptual contents are essentially expressively perspectival; they can be specified explicitly only from some point of view ... and how it is correct to specify them varies from one discursive point of view to another". (14) This feature of concepts is an obvious consequence of the scorekeeping model Brandom endorses: since conceptual content supervenes on the concrete linguistic practices displayed by the members of the linguistic community, concepts do not exist per se but are, so to speak, a function of the inferential net each speaker assigns to a given word or proposition.

Concepts exist only relatively to discursive points of view, because for each single concept there is a plurality of ways of specifying its content. Therefore, identifying the parameters of correctness is entirely up to the interpreter who attempts to reconstruct the discursive scorekeeping practices. According to Brandom the norms that determine when it is correct for an agent to attribute a certain doxastic commitment to someone else are not available in advance as a set of explicit principles "but are implicit in the particular practices by which we understand one another in ordinary conversation". (15) Moreover, since the external interpretation of a linguistic community is not qualitatively different from ordinary scorekeeping activity, "[t]here is never a final answer as to what is correct; everything, including our assessments of such correctness is itself a subject for conversation and further assessment, challenge, defense, and correction". (16)

The inexistence of objective norms and concepts

This point, too, is deeply linked to the previous one. Since conceptual content is perspectival, objective norms and concepts cannot exist. Things, however, are not so simple because Brandom himself repeatedly asserts that one of his primary purposes is to save the distinction between what norms consist in-what is correct according to rules-and our conception of norms-what we take to be correct according to them. This tension is finally resolved in the last two chapters of Making It Explicit. Here, we can comprehend that Brandom's explanation of objectivity is an explanation of the way in which individuals engaged in social practices as we are cannot but employ the notion of objective concepts and rules, even if the fact itself that those concepts and those rules are instituted by our practices precludes the possibility of actually there being entities of such a kind. Notwithstanding the inexistence of objective norms of correctness, each agent can disentangle the inferences he acknowledges from the inferences that are acknowledged by the others. This double perspective yields the illusion of the objectivity of norms. "It would seem to follow that every rational agent is entitled to assume that there are such objective statuses and contents, even though it doesn't follow that there are such statuses and contents". (17)


The overall picture of language and intentionality that emerges from Brandom's work is that of an endless activity of assessing one's and others' linguistic performances that is subject only to those rules that are followed by the last evaluator. The final outcome is an image of normative phenomena in which each individual follows his own conception of the relevant social norms, without any possibility of distinguishing performances that are objectively more correct than others. The most immediate consequence is that the activity of judging cannot stop. Each act of judgement may be revoked into doubt by a subsequent judgement that is based on a new set of auxiliary premises (being not substantially different the case in which new evidence is acquired is not substantially different). Each discourse has no end, or better there is only one big discourse to which each speaker takes part without any possibility to say the last word.

Embracing Brandom's scorekeeping semantics entails different consequences for the issue I am dealing with. Here I will highlight two that I deem to be among the most notables. The first consequence is related to the problem of the "unfreedom of assimilation" sketched in the previous section. This problem stems from the dialogical violence to which the members of marginalized groups are exposed if they want to participate in the deliberative process. In response, one can notice that this worry seems deeply rooted in an essentialist conception of culture. The process of expanding one's views, embracing modes of reasoning, beliefs, outlooks of others can be perceived like a loss of one's former identity only if these items are seen as atomic parts of a fixed totality. But Brandom's philosophy of language teaches us that a constitutive feature of our sapience consists of our ability to distinguish between those beliefs to which we are committed and those beliefs that we instead attribute to others without being committed to. Therefore, expanding the inferential net one associates with a given word or proposition does not mean to give up a constitutive part of one's identity but to learn new ways to think about a given issue. According to this perspective there are not fixed items like objective norms and concepts, so there cannot even be items like distinct cultures, if a culture consists of something like a conceptual framework. (18)

The second point is methodological: it is the observation that Brandom's inferential semantics seems to provide us with a simple recipe to advance the dialogical exchange between the diverse parties involved in the deliberative process. If each participant attempts to reconstruct a kind of map of the commitments and entitlements of the other practitioners, then it should be possible to trace back the source of current disagreements to the basic assumptions that are not shared by the other participants to the dialogue. Perhaps, this technique cannot solve all the controversial issues (for example, issues linked to religious premises may involve too vast a disagreement to be reduced through this methodology), but a painstaking critical research of the implicit assumptions that bring about enduring disagreements may advance the deliberative process in a consistent way.

What follows for the problem of the universality of political judgements? It surely follows that our judgements are always "non-grounded", that is there are not political judgements that can be deemed as truly universal, in the sense of possessing a property that other judgements do not possess. Our judgements are always contextual, they reflect the circumstances and the specific conditions in which they are elaborated; therefore, it is fruitless to pursue a kind of validity that can go forever uncontested, in force of some special relation between the practical evaluation and the state of affairs that is the object of the evaluation itself. Does this contention entail that validity is, in principle, unattainable? No. It merely entails that validity is itself relative to contexts of evaluation. More precisely it entails that the further judgement by means of which we judge about the correctness of a given judgement is itself contextual, and so the judgement about the judgement on the correctness of a given judgement, and so on.

Every judgement, even exemplar ones, can be defied. But until they are not defied by new ones they can always state the matter. And what is required to defy a previous judgement? A minimal requisite is the giving of reasons that motivate the dissent. There is, in principle, no end to the number of verifications a given judgement may undergo, because no judgement is grounded in a way other judgements are not, but, in practice, this series of comparisons is always finite and for each issue there is a judgement that serves as a milestone - at least until the question of its validity is raised.

At this point we should perhaps come back to the problems I surveyed at the outset of this paper in relation to the importance for political judgements to be universal in order to ensure citizens' consensus. If our political judgements cannot attain universal foundation, how can we confide in the non problematic nature of their contextual validity? In other words: how can we immunize our judgements from the virus of relativism that threatens the very possibility of a real consensus about political issues? I think that the problem is more theoretical than practical. As I noted in the previous paragraph, the risk of an endless chain of judgements, each of them subject to further scrutiny, is merely a theoretical possibility. As a matter of fact actual judgements refer their validity to previous judgements, implicit in practice but nevertheless real like those that follow. For this reason, the problem of the contextual validity of political judgements should not be overestimated. In most cases it boils down to the issue of reconciling several diverse outlooks. It calls for a meticulous analysis of the sources of disagreement but it is not intractable, neither it requires to identify a set of judgements that are qualitatively more grounded than others. If the different parties are able to communicate with each other - and this may be a big if - then it will be also possible, at least in principle, to detect and remove the reasons of their dissent.


*. A previous version of this text was read at the VIII Pavia Graduate Conference on Political Philosophy, Pavia 16-17 settembre 2010. Thanks to Omid Hejazi, Stefano Pietropaoli and Francesco Vertova for useful suggestions.

1. For a more comprehensive account, see R. Forst, Toleranz im Konflikt. Geschichte, Gehalt und Gegenwart eines umstrittenen Begriffs, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 2003.

2. See also A.E. Galeotti, Toleration as Recognition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

3. J. Rawls, Political Liberalism, New York, Columbia University Press, 1996.

4. B. Barry, Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2001.

5. C. Kukathas, The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003.

6. W. Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995.

7. Ch.M. Taylor, "The Politics of Recognition", in Ch.M. Taylor et al., Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1994.

8. J. Habermas, Faktizität und Geltung. Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaat, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1992.

9. S. Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 106.

10. M. Festenstein, Negotiating Diversity, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2005.

11. J. Tully, "The Unfreedom of the Moderns in Comparison to their Ideals of Constitutional Democracy", Modern Law Review, 65, 2002, pp. 204-28.

12. See R.B. Brandom, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1994; R.B. Brandom, Articulating Reasons, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2000; J. Wanderer, Robert Brandom, Stocksfield, Acumen, 2008; B. Weiss, J. Wanderer, Reading Brandom: On Making It Explicit, London:, Routledge, 2010.

13. R.B. Brandom, Making It Explicit, cit., p. 275, italics in original.

14. Ibid., p. 590, italics in original.

15. Ibid., p. 646.

16. Ibid., p. 647.

17. D. Laurier, "Pragmatics, Pittsburgh Style", Pragmatics and Cognition, 13, 2005, pp. 141-160, p. 156, italics in original.

18. This conclusion is also in accord with the more recent anthropological reflection. See for example J. Clifford, The Predicament of Culture:Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1988.