Brandom & Pragmatism

Simposio Internacional


Alcalá de Henares, 11 y 12 de abril de 2013 


Financiado por Instituto Franklin y Proyecto de investigación 

Inferentialism as Social Epistemology (MINECO FFI2011-23267)

Organizado por ceDe (Centro de Estudios Dewey en España) y

Proyecto Frames of Understanding (MINECO FFI2012-38009-C02-01+02)


Dirección: Ramón del Castillo y Julio Seoane




R. Brandom (Univ. de Pittsburgh)

B. Ramberg (Univ. de Oslo)

R. del Castillo (UNED)

A. Faerna (UCLM)

J. Zamora (UNED)

J. González (UNED)

J. Vega (UAM)

N. Hernández (Conacyt)

S. Rey (New School for Social Research)

F. Broncano (UC3M)

A. Gómez (UC3M)



Documento Adobe Acrobat 4.1 MB





Conferencia Inaugural 


From German Idealism to American Pragmatism—and Back

Robert Brandom (University of Pittsburgh)

Kant’s most basic idea, the axis around which all his thought turns, is that what distinguishes exercises of judgment and intentional agency from the performances of merely natural creatures is that judgments and actions are subject to distinctive kinds of normative assessment.  Judgments and actions are things we are in a distinctive sense responsible for. 

The classical pragmatist versions of naturalism and empiricism fit together much better than the traditional and logical empiricist versions that preceded and succeeded them.  Far from being in tension, they complement and mutually support one another.  Both the world and our knowledge of it are construed on a single model: as mutable, contingent products of statistical selectional-adaptational processes that allow order to pop to the surface and float in a sea of random variability.  Both nature and experience are to be understood in terms of the processes by which relatively stable constellations of habits arise and sustain themselves through their interactions with an environment that includes a population of competing habits. 

Fundamental pragmatism is the more specific strategy by which the classical American pragmatists sought to naturalize the concept of experience—to demystify and domesticate it, to disentangle it from two centuries of Cartesian encumbrances.  It is the idea that one should understand knowing that as a kind of knowing how (to put it in Rylean terms).  That is, believing that things are thus-and-so is to be understood in terms of practical abilities to do something. 

The fundamental pragmatist aspiration is to be able to exhibit discursive intentionality as a distinctive kind of practical intentionality.

By ‘lingualism’ (a term meant to belong in a family with 'rationalism') I mean commitment to understanding conceptual capacities (discursiveness in general) in terms of linguistic capacities.  Dummett epitomizes a strong version of this order of explanation:

We have opposed throughout the view of assertion as the expression of an interior act of judgment; judgment, rather, is the interiorization of the external act of assertion.   [Dummett: Frege’s Philosophy of Language  p. 361.]

A weaker version of lingualism claims only that language is a necessary condition of discursiveness, not that it is a sufficient condition that can at least in principle be made intelligible independently of talk about discursive commitments.

Methodological pragmatism is the principle that the point of associating meanings, extensions, contents, or other semantic interpretants with linguistic expressions is to codify (express explicitly) proprieties of use.

Semantic pragmatism is the principle that in a natural language, all there is to effect the association of meanings, contents, extensions, rules, or other semantic interpretants with linguistic expressions is the way those expressions are used by the linguistic practitioners themselves.  Semantic pragmatism is a kind of use-functionalism about meaning.

Formal semantics for artificial languages can content itself with the explicit stipulation of such rules or associations of meanings, by the semantic theorist working in a semantic metalanguage.  Philosophical semantics for natural languages is obliged to say what it is about the practices the users of those expressions engage in or the abilities they exercise, in virtue of which they should be understood as governed by those rules, or as conferring those meanings.

The combination of methodological and semantic pragmatism, the two senses in which semantics can be taken to answer to pragmatics, broadly construed, might be called “linguistic pragmatism.”  It is one natural way of applying fundamental pragmatism to systematic theorizing about language.

The lore of our fathers is a fabric of sentences…It is a pale grey lore, black with fact and white with convention. But I have found no substantial reasons for concluding that there are any quite black threads in it, or any white ones.  [Quine:  “Carnap on Logical Truth”, p. 406]

Language is the existence [Dasein] of Geist.  [Hegel:  Phenomenology of Spirit [652], [666]]

(By ‘Geist’ he means the whole normatively articulated discursive realm.)

Language in its widest sense—that is, including all means of communication such as, for example, monuments, rituals, and formalized arts—is the medium in which culture exists and through which it is transmitted. [Dewey: Logic, the Theory of Inquiry, Later Works Vol. 12, p. 28]

Pragmatists who have made the linguistic turn take it that the most important feature of the natural history of creatures like us is that we have come into language: come to engage in distinctively linguistic practices and to exercise distinctively linguistic abilities.  This is both an ontogenetic and a phylogenetic achievement.  Understanding it requires, at a minimum, addressing three large, interconnected kinds of question.   These concern the issues of demarcation, emergence, and leverage.

  • The demarcation question is definitional.  How are linguistic practices and abilities (and hence, the lingualist about discursivity claims, discursive ones) to be distinguished from nonlinguistic ones?
  •  The emergence question concerns the requirement that any account of language that aspires to being naturalistic in even a very broad sense must explain the possibility of the transition from nonlinguistic to linguistic practices and abilities.  How are the abilities we can see in non- or prelinguistic creatures recruited, deployed, and transformed so as to amount to linguistic ones? 
  • The leverage question is how to characterize and explain the massive qualitative difference in capacity between linguistic and nonlinguistic creatures: the bonanza of new abilities and possibilities that language opens up for those that do make the transition.

Upon the whole, professed transcendentalists have been more aware than have professed empiricists of the fact that language makes the difference between brute and man. The trouble is that they have lacked naturalistic conception of its origin and status.  [Dewey:  Experience and Nature, Later Works Vol. 1, p. 134.]

Any theory that rests upon a naturalistic postulate must face the problem of the extraordinary differences that mark off the activities and achievements of human beings from those of other biological forms. It is these differences that have led to the idea that man is completely separated from other animals by properties that come from a non-natural source….The development of language (in its widest sense) out of prior biological activities is, in its connection with wider cultural forces, the key to this transformation. The problem, so viewed, is not the problem of the transition of organic behavior into something wholly discontinuous with it—as is the case when, for example, Reason, Intuition and the A priori are appealed to for explanation of the difference. It is a special form of the general problem of continuity of change and the emergence of new modes of activity—the problem of development at any level.  [Dewey: Logic, the Theory of Inquiry,Later Works Vol. 12, p. 50.]

The evidence usually adduced in support of the proposition that lower animals, animals without language, think, turns out, when examined, to be evidence that when men, organisms with power of social discourse, think, they do so with the organs of adaptation used by lower animals, and thus largely repeat in imagination schemes of overt animal action. But to argue from this fact to the conclusion that animals think is like concluding that because every tool, say a plow, originated from some pre-existing natural production, say a crooked root or forked branch, the latter was inherently and antecedently engaged in plowing. The connection is there, but it is the other way around.  [Dewey:  Experience and Nature, Later Works Vol. 1, p. 215.]

The demarcation question is prior.  If one is going to say how Geist precipitates out of nature, and how it transforms sentient organisms into sapient ones, one should try to say what it is.   The challenge is to offer satisfactory responses to both the emergence question and the leverage question.  Focusing on just one of them makes it too easy.  In the passage above, Dewey says in effect that the neo-cartesian intellectualists make the leverage question too easy to respond to, by ignoring (or making it impossible to address) the question of emergence.  I have just accused him of making the complementary mistake.  In any case, it is clear that the hinge that connects the issues of emergence and leverage is the question of demarcation.  For the challenge is to show that the same phenomenon that one has accounted for the emergence of can leverage sentience into sapience.  So demarcating the realm of linguistic or discursive practices and abilities is an absolutely essential element of the philosophical project I have been describing: the development of pragmatism after the linguistic turn, a lingualist fundamental pragmatism.

My idea is that pragmatism can usefully be combined with a rationalist criterion of demarcation of the linguistic—and hence of discursiveness in general.  Pragmatically, what distinguishes the linguistic practice in virtue of which we are sapient and not merely sentient beings is its core practices of giving and asking for reasons.  A necessary and sufficient condition of being a discursive practice is that some performances are accorded by it the pragmatic significance of claimings or assertings.  Semantically, claimable or assertible contents are propositional contents.  Syntactically, what expresses those contents is declarative sentences.  This combination of pragmatic, semantic, and syntactic features is the iron triangle of discursiveness.  The pragmatist order of explanation of course starts with the pragmatics.  The thought is that to have the pragmatic significance of an assertion is to be able both to serve as a reason, and potentially to stand in need of reasons.  So, semantically, propositional contents are those that can play the role both of premise and of conclusion in inferences.  Discursive practice is accordingly understood as essentially inferentially articulated. 

Rationalism as I have described it is not a form of the intellectualism that stands opposed to fundamental pragmatism.  It is wholly compatible with understanding discursive intentionality as a kind of practical intentionality: specifically, as the kind that includes practices of making claims and giving and asking for reasons.  It aims to say what structure a norm-instituting social practice must have in order properly to be understood as such a practice: a discursive practice.  It offers a specific proposal for how to understand the kind of practical knowing how that adds up to cognitive claiming that: it is practical mastery of broadly inferential relations and transitions.  And answering the demarcation question about discursive practice in a rationalist manner neither makes it impossible in principle to answer the emergence question nor obliges one to give a cartesian answer to it.

The move beyond Dewey and Wittgenstein to a rationalist, more specifically inferentialist pragmatism that I am recommending is accordingly also a return to pragmatism’s roots in German idealism.  As Kant synthesized empiricism and rationalism, and the pragmatists synthesized naturalism and empiricism, I’m suggesting that a way forward is to synthesize pragmatism and rationalism—in the form of the rationalist response to the demarcation question.





Pragmatism and its Narratives: 

Brandom, Rorty and the Construction of Philosophical Histories.

Bjørn Ramberg (University of Oslo)

As I read them, both Brandom and Rorty are semantic historicists. They take it that the inferential relations that we may capture abstractly in theories of meaning for languages rely on fundamentally practical abilities, and are continually articulated through the actual practices of communicators. There is no Platonic realm. Brandom, at least, has a theoretical conception of linguistic meaning that provides support for this general view. Moreover, framed in this perspective, Brandom’s historical narratives emerge as an integral part of what it is to philosophically elucidate our own concepts. Brandom’s histories of philosophy are a means to better our self-understanding, not just in the obvious sense that knowledge of our history may enhance knowledge of our present, but in the more ambitious sense that to trace aspects of the histories of the inferential relations that our concepts articulate is to sharpen those concepts, and to make ourselves potentially better users of them. Brandom’s histories are thus both part and parcel of the argument for the species of inferentialism that he has developed and also an application of this view to the conduct of philosophical inquiry. With Rorty, things are not so clear. It is not clear that his historicism rests on a theoretical basis in the sense that I attribute to Brandom. Nor is it clear that his historical narratives constitute part of an argument for a philosophical conception or a set of doctrines. Where Brandom’s histories are constructive and clarifying, Rorty’s are (often) destructive and destabilizing. Rorty and Brandom, it seems to me, are aiming for different kinds of effect when they construct their narratives. Brandom’s histories are offered in the service of systematic philosophical theory, intended to provide theory with a better grip. Rorty’s genealogies display irony’s ways with theory. This, at least, is the contrast that I will be trying to make out.


Authority, Responsibility, and Self-Knowledge:  

Ourselves as Active Self-Knowers


Jesús Vega Encabo (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)


Robert Brandom has developed the pragmatist tradition in a Kantian way. His Kantian pragmatism encourages us to focus on judgments and intentional actions as things which we are responsible for, as expressions of commitment and exercises of authority. Creatures capable of responsible judgment and action are self-conscious creatures that exhibit, in Kantian terms, a distinctive synthetic unity of apperception and, in Hegelian terms, a particular way of self-transformation. Sapient beings are then creatures that are capable of taking themselves as actively engaged in the shaping of their own attitudes. Kant urged us to view this sort of engagement as a kind of critical and active self-knowledge that is authoritative and the precondition of our responsible doings. In this paper, I will present a model of self-knowledge that seeks to account for the special unity in our constellation of commitments in terms of a kind of practical self-knowledge derived from how we responsibly shape those commitments and transform ourselves. This model is also in a position to account for the sort of default entitlement that makes our self-ascriptions authoritative. 


New Existential Commitments in Science


Nalliely Hernandez (CONACYT-México)


The main idea of this writing is showing how the general perspective of Brandom’s inferentialism and some particular tools of it result useful to reinterpret conceptual changes in Quantum Mechanics. Without being a scholar in inferentialism or in philosophy of language I think that these tools are interesting to review some issues about meaning and existential commitments in Quantum Theory beginning (1926-7). First, I will outline some general features of Brandom’s inferentialism, and how this general perspective explains existential commitments. Then, I will suggest how we could use these theoretical tools in clarifying and explaining the new meanings provided by the Principle of Uncertainty and a possible interpretation of such new use of concepts, closer to the Rortian perspective about scientific objects. 



Inferentialism and Naturalism


Jesús Zamora Bonilla  (UNED) and Javier González de Prado Salas (UNED)

In this presentation we examine the relation between naturalism and the inferentialist theory of language and though proposed by Robert Brandom. On the one hand, we discuss whether it is possible to develop a naturalist account of representation within an inferentialist framework. Inferentialism explains intentional content in terms of the role played in a relevant discursive practice by the performances/states expressing such content. Given this pragmatist approach, it would seem that inferentialism is amenable to a direct naturalist elaboration. Nevertheless, Brandom's inferentialism favors a normative analysis of discursive practices: the meaning of an expression is determined by the norms governing the use of such expression. Such introduction of normative notions may seem incompatible with a naturalistic stance. However, we argue that Brandom's pragmatist approach to normativity – normative statuses are understood in terms of the attitudes of agents – offers the resources for a naturalist construction of inferentialism. Furthermore, we suggest that, in order to account for the representational dimension of discursive practices, inferentialism should be developed in a pragmatist direction. Discursive practices involve practical interactions with the environment, and the outcomes of such interactions (their failure or success) depend on the way the world is. As a result, discursive practices become sensitive to how things are in the world.


On the other hand, we explore how the 'hard problem' in the philosophy of mind can be approached from an inferentialist perspective. Firstly, we argue that inferentialism allows to accept the existence of non-physical entities (such as numbers or normative statuses) without transgressing naturalism. This is so because in inferentialism, the concept of existence is analyzed by looking at its role in our practices – in particular, the commitments and entitlements attached to attributions of existence. Therefore, we are free to talk of the existence of non-physical entities, as long as such talk does not introduce commitments to such entities possessing causal capacities. Moreover, we argue that one can study the different practical significance of first and third person vocabularies – and the abilities needed to master their use – without needing to introduce any special 'first person ontology'. Thus, at least from an inferentialist perspective, recognizing the irreducible role of first person vocabulary in our practices does not entail any non-naturalistic metaphysical commitment. 



On Norms and Social Practices:

Brandom, Dewey, and the Demarcation Question

Ángel M. Faerna (Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha)

A most distinctive feature of classical American pragmatism was its insistence on the continuity between reason and nature, or between the conceptual and the organic. Dewey made it clear that this naturalism aimed to connect ideas and intellectual operations with the social rather than with the merely biological dimension of human existence. It was, in Dewey’s words, “cultural naturalism”. But Robert Brandom has argued that this line of thought, which he labels “assimilationist”, cannot account for the normativity implicit in our discursive practices: it led classical pragmatists to engage in an instrumentalist account of semantic norms that Brandom rejects in favor of his own inferentialist account.

Brandom’s position is well illustrated by his answer to the demarcation question “What sets linguistic practices apart from prelinguistic or nondiscursive ones?” According to Brandom’s rationalist criterion of demarcation, it is the practice of giving and asking for reason what makes us “sapient and not merely sentient beings”. I will comment on the differences between Dewey and Brandom concerning this question. My commentary will make use of Dewey’s important distinction between two types of symbol-meanings corresponding to two different social institutions: “language in its widest sense” and “language as a tool of inquiry”.



Dewey and Brandom on the Poetic Dimension of Language


Santiago Rey (New School for Social Research)


In his latest book Perspectives on Pragmatism: Classical, Recent, and Contemporary, Robert Brandom presents a nuanced, yet critical, reading of the classical pragmatists, contrasting their instrumentalist view with what he calls ‘a rationalist pragmatism’.   Although Brandom praises the classical American pragmatists for their insightful account of human experience, and particularly their insistence on the priority of knowing how over knowing that, he is critical of their attempt to account for human thought and action in narrow instrumental terms. The problem with this approach, Brandom argues, is that it ultimately fails to provide a satisfactory account of the normative space that we inhabit as rational creatures and thus it obscures the way in which human experience radically differs from that of non-human creatures. In their effort to defend a thoroughgoing naturalism, the classical pragmatists lost sight of what Brandom calls the issue of demarcation, that is, the question about the fundamental trait that distinguishes sapient beings like us from merely sentient creatures.  However, as I try to show in this presentation, John Dewey –one of the thinkers that Brandom accuses of upholding an ultimately untenable instrumentalism—offers a sophisticated answer to the demarcation question through his account of the disclosive/poetic dimension of language.  Dewey and Brandom, I would like to argue, share a commitment to understanding language in terms of its ability to constitute, preserve, and transform the meaningful world we live in. What is so special about language is its ability to raise us above the space of causal interactions that dominate the natural world, and situate us in a normative realm where we acquire the freedom to engender novel purposes in a continuous exercise of self-creation and transformation.