Inferentialism / Institutionalism

March 25, 2014

“[P]eople who are interested in political speech have found thinking about the concept not in terms of how it represents the world, but rather of the circumstances of appropriate application. For instance, if you’re interested in the concept of property, the inferentialist analysis says the notion of property is really a bundle of rights and responsibilities, and we should look at the circumstances under which we say that someone owns something and what the consequences of saying that they own it are. One of the advantages of that is that we see there may be other equally natural bundles of rights and responsibilities. We needn’t treat ownership of real property as coming with all the rights and responsibilities a piece of portable property would have. Maybe if the land that you own has wetlands on it, you don’t have as many rights with respect to it. With that notion of ownership, you would have to unbunble some of the rights and responsibilities that went before, whereas if you are just thinking in representational terms, you don’t get that insight. The meaning of property is a matter of inference from the circumstances to the consequences of application that’s curled up in it.” – Brandom, p. 385.

“A final reason for the failure to develop a theory adequate to handle the problem of harmful effects stems from a faulty concept of a factor of production. This is usually thought of as a physical entity which the businessman acquires and uses (an acre of land, a ton of fertiliser) instead of as a right to perform certain (physical) actions. We may speak of a person owning land and using it as a factor of production but what the land-owner in fact possesses is the right to carry out a circumscribed list of actions. The rights of a land-owner are not unlimited. It is not even always possible for him to remove the land to another place, for instance, by quarrying it. And although it may be possible for him to exclude some people from using “his” land, this may not be true of others. For example, some people may have the right to cross the land. Furthermore, it may or may not be possible to erect certain types of buildings or to grow certain crops or to use particular drainage systems on the land. This does not come about simply because of government regulation. It would be equally true under the common law. In fact it would be true under any system of law. A system in which the rights of individuals were unlimited would be one in which there were no rights to acquire.” Coase, p. 134.

“Institutional rules are prescriptive statements that forbid, require, or permit some action or outcome (E. Ostrom 1986a). One of the three deontic operators – forbid, require, permit – must be contained in a statement for it to be considered a rule. All three deontic operators are used in this definition of rules.

Some analysts limit their conception of rules to prescriptive statements containing only required or forbidden actions and outcomes. With that limited conception, some recurring situations are rule-governed, and others are not. By including all three deontic operators in a definition of a rule, it is always possible to identify the set of rules that constitute a situation: (1) Is this action or outcome (or its negation) required? (2) Is this action or outcome (or its negation) forbidden? Any action or outcome (or its negation) that is not required or forbidden is permitted. Consequently, the absence of a rule forbidding or requiring an action is logically equivalent to the presence of a rule that permits an action.” – Ostrom, p. 140.


Brandom, Robert & Williams, J. J. (2013). “Inferential Man: An Interview with Robert Brandom.” symploke. 21(1), pp. 367-391.

Coase, Ronald H. [1960] “The Problem of Social Cost.” in Chennat Gopalakrishnan (ed.) (2000) Classic Papers in Natural Resource Management. Palgrave, Macmillan. pp. 87-137

Ostrom, Elinor. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge university press.


3 Responses to “Inferentialism / Institutionalism”

  1. Hi Duncan, thanks for the references. In the Brandom passage, is there an adjective missing in the first sentence after “found” (e.g., “useful”)? Also, what is the word “natural” doing as an adjective for “bundles of rights”? Are property rights “natural”? Are we to say that causality and normativity are both “natural” and in the same sense?

  2. duncan Says:

    Hi Christopher. Yeah I stumbled over that sentence too, but the missing word (whatever it is) seems to be missing in the original? The link is here: – it’s a great interview, well worth reading if you haven’t. Very touching in places.

    On ‘natural’ I took Brandom to be implying something along the lines of: we have a tendency to assume that the bundles of rights and responsibilities that have become conventional w/r/t property, to be bundled together because there’s some non-accidental (or even ‘intrinsic’) connection between these various rights – so while one might contest whether something is or is not property, or whose property it might be, what it means for something to be property is given ‘naturally’ by the way these rights and responsibilities align together. But in fact there are vast numbers of different kinds of property, because to own something is to possess a large number of different rights and responsibilities, any of which can be altered independently of the others. And the fact that we tend to think of certain bundles of rights & responsibilities as more ‘natural’ than others (in the sense of – we think of them more easily; this is the way the grooves of the mind and of social practice run), is a function of their conventional status, and a history of sanctions, etc., rather than anything more intrinsic to the bundling itself.

    I don’t think that’s a novel observation (I think Coase & Ostrom are saying something similar) – but I guess Brandom’s suggestion is that his inferentialist apparatus can give useful analytic tools to people who want to work with that insight; which seems plausible.

  3. Hi, Duncan, thanks for that. I guess I’m just a little (metaphysically) over-sensitive to the word “natural”. I look forward patiently, (after all, I’m retired and you aren’t) but with keen anticipation to your response to my other comments elsewhere on your blog.

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