Weak, Strong and Hyper- Inferentialism

May 12, 2012

Brandom’s system is an ‘inferentialist’ one. Brandom frames much of his work by contrasting this ‘inferentialism’ with what he calls ‘representationalism’. These are two different approaches to understanding conceptual content. ‘Representationalism’ is the view that representation should be taken as explanatorily fundamental for semantics. On this picture, certain linguistic units have meanings by virtue of their powers to denote, or refer. These units can then be connected and combined in propositional structures or belief-webs, the subsections of which can be connected by chains of inference. This is the picture of language proposed by Bertrand Russell, and by the early analytic philosophers working within the logistic paradigm Russell popularised within the English-language discipline. There are simple units of reference, which can be combined and manipulated by using fundamental logical tools of inference. Inference is explanatorily basic, also, on this account – inference cannot be explained in terms of reference. But reference likewise cannot be explained in terms of other semantic concepts.

‘Inferentialism’, by contrast, takes inference as explanatorily fundamental. Furthermore – and seemingly implausibly – it suggests that representation can be explained in terms of inference. On this inferentialist picture, inferences do not connect independently-comprehensible representational content-units. Representations can only be understood – and can be fully explained – as products of inferences.

In Making It Explicit (and in other works) Brandom distinguishes between three kinds of inferentialism: weak inferentialism, strong inferentialism, and hyper-inferentialism. Brandom himself endorses ‘strong inferentialism’. Here are his characterisations of the positions (from Articulating Reasons, p. 219-220):

Weak inferentialism is the claim that inferential articulation is a necessary aspect of conceptual content. Strong inferentialism is the claim that broadly inferential articulation is sufficient to determine conceptual content (including its referential dimension). Hyperinferentialism is the claim that narrowly inferential content is sufficient to determine conceptual content.

Obviously the key here is the difference between “broadly” and “narrowly” inferential content. Brandom characterises the difference as follows:

Broadly inferential articulation is sufficient to determine conceptual content. Broadly inferential articulation includes as inferential the relation even between circumstances and consequences of application, even when one or the other is noninferential (as with observable and immediately practical concepts), since in applying any concept one implicitly endorses the propriety of the inference from its circumstances to its consequences of application. Narrowly inferential articulation is restricted to what Sellars calls “language-language” moves, that is, to the relation between propositional contents.

Brandom presents here a ‘web of belief’ picture, in which propositional contents are related inferentially. Proposition A implies proposition B, and both are incompatible with proposition C, etc. If we understand propositional contents in linguistic terms – propositions being things that can be expressed in sentences – then we can think of the inferential relationships between propositions as relationships between specific linguistic contents. An inference is a “language-language” move, in that it connects one linguistic content to another linguistic content.

Hyperinferentialism, as Brandom characterises it, suggests that linguistic content can be fully understood in terms of these language-language moves. This has some similarities to the class of positions discussed by John McDowell (in his Mind and World) under the heading of ‘coherentism’ (McDowell’s particular target in these discussions is Donald Davidson). The objection to this position is that it seems to sever conceptual content from any connection to the outside world (or, more properly, any rational connection – any connection that can rightly be taken as placing a warranted constraint or having a justificatory bearing on the content of our propositions). In McDowell’s words, this picture:

depicts our empirical thinking as engaged in with no rational constraint, but only causal influence, from outside… Coherentist rhetoric suggests images of confinement within the sphere of thinking, as opposed to being in touch with something outside it.

Brandom too regards this as the likely penalty of a hyperinferentialist understanding of conceptual content. Such an understanding, Brandom claims, may be plausible “at most for some abstract mathematical concepts” (AR, p. 220). It is, however, an inadequate explanatory apparatus if we aspire to treat the empirical richness of most conceptual content.

Weak inferentialism, by contrast, suggests that while inferential connections between propositional contents are a necessary component of our explanation of conceptual content (a concept cannot have content if nothing follows from that content), an account of inference cannot be sufficient to fully explain conceptual content: some other category – i.e. reference – must be brought in to account for the (rational) connection between words (or propositional contents) and things.

What is the nature of the ‘strong inferentialism’ Brandom advocates, which aims to chart a course between these two alternatives? Another way of putting this: what is the category of ‘broad inference’ that encompasses more than simply language-language moves under the heading of inference, for Brandom?

The important Chapter 4 of Making It Explicit addresses these issues. There Brandom discusses ‘Perception and Action’ – or, as he also terms then, ‘language-entry’ and ‘language-exit’ moves. Language-entry moves (perceptions) allow things outside of linguistic practice (the regular furniture of our world) to impinge upon, influence, generate and destroy the conceptual contents we manipulate in our thoughts and statements – to have a bearing upon which conceptual contents are warranted, and which are not. Language-exit moves, by contrast, allow our concepts to impact upon the world in more thoroughgoing ways than via the usual articulation of sentences or interaction of brain-behaviours – we act and transform the world in ways that are connected to our beliefs, and the justification or otherwise of these actions is connected to the content of those beliefs.

How can these perceptions and actions be folded within an ‘inferentialist’ account of conceptual content? In what sense should the perception of a moving rock, or the action of kicking one, be understood ‘inferentially’?


2 Responses to “Weak, Strong and Hyper- Inferentialism”

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