Inferentialism and the compositionality of meaning


Inferentialism, which I am going to present in detail in the following sections, is the view that meanings are, roughly, roles that are acquired by types of sounds and inscriptions in virtue of their being treated according to rules of our language games, roughly in the sense in which wooden pieces acquire certain roles by being treated according the rules of chess. The most important consequences are that (i) a meaning is not an object labeled (stood for, represented ...) by an expression; and that (ii) meaning is normative in the sense that to say that an expression means thus and so is to say that it should be used so and so. The founding father of inferentialism is Brandom (1994; 2000). (However, nothing in this paper hinges on the fact that the version of inferentialism defended here is identical with Brandom's). This position provokes two kinds of objections. First there are general objections towards the very normativity of meaning, which do not target especially inferentialism; these I have addressed elsewhere 1. Besides this, there are objection targeted more specifically at inferentialism. Probably the most discussed specimen of such objections is the objection - repeatedly raised especially by Jerry Fodor and Ernest LePore and others - to the effect that though meanings should be compositional, the compositionality of inferential roles is unattainable. This is the kind of objection I am going to deal with here 2. (Hand in hand with this objection then go various allegations of circularity of inferentialism, which we will also discuss.) To do this, I will exploit the long-standing comparison of language to chess, as it seems particularly helpful for making the inferentialist account of language plausible3. This comparison, to be sure, has its limits beyond which it may become severely misleading; but as long as we keep them in mind, it can serve us very well.



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References found in this work

Ontological relativity.W. V. Quine - 1968 - Journal of Philosophy 65 (7):185-212.
Making it Explicit.Isaac Levi & Robert B. Brandom - 1996 - Journal of Philosophy 93 (3):145.
The taming of the true.Neil Tennant - 1997 - New York: Oxford University Press.

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