Saturday, December 15, 2007

On Brandom's so-called inferentialism

Before getting to the post proper, it will help to lay out a distinction drawn, I believe, by Sellars. The distinction is between three sorts of transitions one could make in relation to propositions, for example if one is playing a language game of some sort. They are language-entry moves, language-language moves, and language-exit moves. The first is made through perception and conceptualization. Perceiving the crumb cake entitles me to say that there is crumb cake there. The second is paradigmatic inferential or consequential relations among propositions. Inferring from p&q to p is a language-language move. The third is moving from a practical commitment or explicit desire to action. Borrowing Perry's example, it is the move from thinking that I have to be at the meeting and that the meeting is starting now to me getting up and rushing off to the meeting.

In Making It Explicit, Brandom distinguishes three things that could be meant by inferentialism. These are the necessity of inferential relations, the sufficiency of inferential relations, and hyperinferentialism. The first is the claim that inferential articulation is necessary for meaning. Representation might also be necessary, but at the least inference is necessary. The second is the claim that inferential articulation is sufficient for meaning. In both of these, inference is taken broadly so as not to collapse into hyperinferentialism, which is the thesis that inference narrowly construed is sufficient for meaning. The narrow construal is that inferences are language-language moves. What does this make the broad construal? According to Brandom, it includes the language-entry and -exit moves. In MIE, Brandom defends, I believe, the necessity of inferential relations, although he says some things that sound like he likes the idea of the sufficiency claim. He doesn't think that hyperinferentialism will work. This is because he thinks that for some words, the content of the word depends on causal/perceptual connections. I think that color terms are examples. Additionally, the content of some words exhibits itself in what practical consequences it has in our action and this exhibition is an essential part of the meaning of the word. My beliefs about crumb cake will influence how I act around crumb cake. Hyperinferentialism cannot account for these because the language-entry and -exit moves essential to their meaning are not things hyperinferentialism has access to.

Brandom's claim then, once things have been unpacked a bit, amounts to saying that the narrowly inferential connections, perceptual input, and practical output are necessary for meaning. This seems to undercut the charge that inferentialism loses the world in a froth of words, which charge is mentioned at the end of ch. 4 of MIE, I think. It is also a somewhat looser version of inferentialism since things that are not traditionally inferential get counted as inferential. The inferentialist could probably make a case that that the language-language moves are particularly important to meaning, but I think Brandom's inferentialism stretches the bounds of inference a bit. I'm not sure an inferentialist of the Prawitz-Dummett sort would be entirely comfortable with the Brandomian version of it. By the end of MIE, Brandom's broad notion of inference encompasses a lot. Granted, it is fairly plausible that much of that is important to or essential for meaning. However, I wonder if it doesn't move a bit away from the motivating idea of inferentialism, namely that inference is what is central.

12 comments:

Justin said...

I think you're right that this is a weird feature of Brandom's account. I tried to push him on the distinction between between a more general pragmatism about concepts and his privileging of inference. So far as I understood his response, he thinks that since you can't properly characterize the nonlinguistic doings except by using the resources of the linguistic inferential doings, it make sense to give pride of place to linguistic inferential relations.

Shawn said...

I remember that. I also remember being dissatisfied with his answer. When you say "linguistic inferential doings", do you mean the language-language moves? At least for some of the non-inferential doings, Brandom's explanation involves broadly inferential stuff. For example, he says that scorekeeping and assertion are inferential.

I think there is something uncomfortable about Brandom's explanation based answer. If we can explain the doings using only narrowly inferential resources, why do we need to appeal to the broadly inferential stuff? There is probably a good response to this, but that, at least, is my worry.

Justin said...

By the linguistic bits, I meant the fact that we're able to make inferences about those behaviors. So what's in view is the language-language transitions and also the ability to make explicit proprieties concerning those language-exit moves (if we're suitably sophisticated). As a matter of fact, this will require us to have language-entry moves, since any autonomous language game requires those, and it seems that it would also require language-exit moves, since those involve the four f's and whatnot.

I still think this might give pride of place to the language-language moves, at least in the case where you can make it explicit what proprieties you accept. I'm not sure how it works in the case where you can't.

I'm still unsatisfied with that, but not because I can't see a sense in which it's really an inferential theory.

Tomáš Sobek said...

What is a source of normativity in brandomian theory? Participation (and also implicit recognition) on social practices? If so, it is ultimately collective recogniton?

Shawn said...

That sounds like a reasonable way of singling out the language-language moves as special. I think you're right that the role of explicitation is important in setting up language-language moves as central since explicitation would move us to a position to start making the language-language moves.

I'm blanking on what "the four f's" are. What are they?

Is the problem not that it is a stretched notion of inference but that all the moves we've been talking about start with "language"?

Shawn said...

tomas,
Participation in and implicit recognition of social practices is a decent characterization of the source of normativity. The story is a little more nuanced, but that is roughly it. Normative attitudes institute normative statuses, which require a social set up. I don't think collective recognition is needed (Although, I'm not sure what exactly you mean. What I think you might mean isn't needed though). Brandom wants to distinguish his approach from what he labels the I-we approach to normativity that sets up the community as a single entity which is the measure of all things, at least in the case of conceptual normativity. Brandom takes what he calls an I-though approach, which has lots of perspectives and no privileged ones. I'm doubtful that everyone has to explicitly recognize the societal practices, although most of the critters have to be playing the societal games most of the time (not sure how much or how often really) for things to work.

Tomáš Sobek said...

Thank You. I think that individual recognition of social praxis is not independent but pressuposes normative expectation on the side of other members of referential society. If so then ultimate source of normativity (if any) is not individual recognition but collective expectation.

Justin said...

Feeding, fighting, fleeing and mating.

Ole Thomassen Hjortland said...

Shawn,
Nice post. I hadn't come across the term 'hyperinferentialism' before. Do you have the specific passages from MiE where this is discussed? (Does he still use the term in AR?)

Perhaps you can help me with another questions as well. Some time ago, some of us in Arché tried to find the first use of the term 'inferentialism', but with limited success. It looks like it's at least used in Brandom's 'Inference, expression, and induction' (1988). Do you know if it occurs somewhere earlier than this, say in Sellars?

Any help appreciated!

Shawn said...

The part of MIE where "hyperinferentialism" is discussed is p. 130-132, in the section called "Varieties of Inferentialism". It is still used in AR. It is briefly mentioned on p. 28 and explained more in note 4 on p. 219.

I'm not sure what the origin of the word "inferentialism" is. I had assumed that it came from Sellars, but I probably thought that because a lot of the relevant ideas came from his work. I looked in what Brandom called "his classical inferentialist tract", "Inference and Meaning", but I couldn't find anything after briefly scanning it. I just looked over Belnap's "Tonk, Plonk, and Plink", but there was nothing there either. I'll post something here if I find out something.

Shawn said...

I sent Brandom an email asking if he knew who came up with the term "inferentialism". It turns out that it is his term, although some of the ideas come from other people, including Sellars. That 1988 paper of his is very likely the place where the term was coined.

Ole Thomassen Hjortland said...

Thanks Shawn! That's very helpful. It's a bit surprising that the term is that new. For some reason I always supposed that it originated from Dummett's work in 70's.