Inferentialism; Material Inference

February 8, 2012

So – as I say, in this series of posts I am going to push Brandom’s pragmatics into the background for once, and focus on his inferentialist semantics. There may initially be some replication of earlier blog content here, but we’ll be moving into new terrain soon enough.

What is inferentialism?

Brandom contrasts inferentialism, as a philosophical explanatory strategy, with representationalism, which Brandom regards as the dominant modern philosophical tradition. Representationalism takes the concept of representation as explanatorily fundamental, in our accounts of meaning. Inferentialism, by contrast, takes the concept of inference as explanatorily fundamental. What we’re trying to explain here is sapience, or rationality, or ‘concept-mongering’ (all of which come to the same thing, on Brandom’s account – though of course from the point of view of other theoretical perspectives these concepts might not be equivalent).

Of course there’s no intrinsic need to take either representation or inference as derivative of the other – both concepts could be explanatorily fundamental. But Brandom thinks he can show that reference is derivative of inference – thereby going against much of the modern analytic tradition.

So Brandom starts with inference. That’s our first point.

Second point is the idea of material inference. Brandom contrasts the idea of material inference to that of formal inference – and again the question is one of explanatory priority. A formal inference is one that obeys an explicitly formulated rule of inference, which rule is applicable independent of the content of the inference. A material inference, by contrast, is an inference the goodness of which depends on the content of the claims being inferred from and to.

The modern philosophical tradition, as Brandom characterises it, tends to explain apparently material inferences in terms of formal inferences, by suggesting that apparently material inferences rely on suppressed premises that, if made explicit, render the relevant inference context-independent. So, to use one of Brandom’s favourite examples, if I make the inference “It is raining, so it is wet outside”, a formalist would regard me as possessing a hidden premise here – “If it is raining, then it is wet outside” – and the inferential chain here runs “If it is raining, then it is wet outside; it is raining; therefore it is wet outside”. The actual inference them becomes a purely formal logical one – If X then Y; X; therefore Y – and the actual content of the inference is simply plugged in to this formal operation. The inference itself is independent of that content.

Material inference, by contrast, is inference where the content itself matters for the inference itself – where the inferential move should be understood not in terms of a hidden premise that renders the inference a formal logical one, but in terms of one proposition simply implying another, by virtue of the content of the propositions themselves, without any additional mediating operation.

Brandom believes that material inference is explanatorily prior to formal inference – that formal inference should be explained in terms of material inference, not the other way around.

Brandom has arguments for this – notably Wittgenstein’s regress of interpretations, which Brandom takes to show the unacceptability of formalism (or, in his vocabulary, ‘regulism’); a similar argument is made in Lewis Carrol’s ‘What Achilles Said to the Tortoise’, which Brandom also cites. But Brandom’s arguments aren’t specifically my concern here – for now I’m just interested in articulating his position.

More in my next post.

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