Material Inference

January 18, 2011

All right. I realise I’m going to have to back up and address, at least briefly, the issue of material inference in Brandom if I’m going to be able to make clear what I’m after by contrasting Brandomian explanation with Wittgensteinian quietism.

Brandom derives his category of ‘material inference’ from Wilfrid Sellars. I think Brandom is probably doing some violence to the category as Sellars intended it, but it’s an age since I read Sellars so I wouldn’t want to go to the wall on that. At some point I need to reread Sellars, and also read Brandom’s commentary on Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, but this will all have to wait for another day.

Here’s how Brandom introduces the category:

The kind of inference whose correctnesses essentially involve the conceptual contents of its premises and conclusions may be called, following Sellars, “material inference.” (MIE p. 97)

Material inference is to be contrasted with formal inference, wherein inferential structures (e.g. the form of a syllogism) are taken to be valid or invalid independent of the actual substantive content of the variables. The concept of material inference therefore suggests that the differentiation of form and content in, for example, the study of formal logic is, in some deep sense, theoretically unjustifiable – even if it might be pragmatically valuable (which, of course, for Brandom the pragmatist, is more than enough to legitimate a discursive practice). This suggestion occupies a similar theoretical space to Quine’s claim that synthetic and analytic truths are distinguishable only contextually, as those propositions that we are, respectively, willing and unwilling to make vulnerable to the impact of experience in our web of belief. For Brandom, all inference ultimately needs to be explained in terms of material inference – material inference is one of his most fundamental categories.

I’m going to skimp on the discussion of the category here, in the hope of returning to it in more depth at a later date. For now basically all I want to say is that “material inference” serves the function of the Wittgensteinian “this is simply what we do” – it short-circuits a formalist regress. If I make a good material inference then I don’t need an infinite regress of rules for applying rules for applying rules, etc. My inference is good in itself, content and all – indeed the inference cannot be distinguished from the conceptual content it deals with – material inference ‘grounds’ my theoretical chain of explanation.

We now come to the point at which Brandom departs from Wittgenstein. For Wittgenstein, having reached the “this is simply what we do”, we can go no further – our spade is turned. For Brandom, although material inference grounds the activity of inference, preventing the Wittgensteinian regress of interpretations, we can then go on to thematise and question the content of a material inference. Indeed we can, if we wish, begin to apply further elements of the potential ‘infinite regress’ to the material inference, rendering it non-material. This is the process that Brandom calls explicitation. It is a dramatic departure from Wittgensteinian quietism, and it will have large repercussions for Brandom’s system, requiring a substantial theoretical apparatus to deal with the problems it opens up. I will try to begin to look at why in my next post.

[As I’ve already said, I’ll need to return to all this and deal with it much more carefully at a later date – apologies for haste here.]

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One Response to “Material Inference”

  1. duncan Says:

    I’m dropping this quote here as articulating a direction of thought that I need to pursue at a later time (from Reason in Philosophy p. 4):

    Not all norms are rational norms. What is it for it to be reasons that one is sometimes obliged or responsible for having, that some sort of authority is conditioned on? The answer developed here understands reasons in terms of inferences. Reasons are construed as premises, from which one can draw conclusions. Although this is, I think, a natural enough approach, it is worth noticing that it is not obligatory. Work is required to wrestle our talk of reasons around into inferential shape. If I am asked why I stacked the flowerpots next to the wall, I may reply “because she asked me to.” That is giving a reason. But it is not immediately clear what relation it bears to any inference. Indeed, when any fact is cited as a reason (whether as the justification of a cognitive or a practical commitment), a story would need to be told about how that fact is supposed to be understood to show up as a premise in some inference. Inferring is reasoning, but there may be other kinds of reasoning besides inferring. Activities such as making distinctions or comparisons, exploring analogies and disanalogies, conceptual construction and analysis also seem to be kinds of reasoning. It is at least not obvious that they should be either assimilated to or understood in terms of inference. Even in the light of these considerations, I am concerned to see what sort of story can be told, what sort of illumination one can get, by focusing to begin with on the central inferential kind of reasons and the dimension of reasoning they pick out.


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