In many works over many years, Robert Brandom has advocated a view called “inferentialism.” It’s a view about linguistic meaning, and it asserts specifically that the meaning of a claim is fixed by what role it plays in the economy of giving reasons and asking for them. So the meaning of “The earth goes around the sun” can only be seen in the way the claim is used in explanations and arguments. It isn’t typically used in an explanation of how zebras behave, so it doesn’t have anything to do with zebras, really. But it is used in figuring out calendars and astronomy and so on, and as we get into those topics, we can begin to see what the claim really means. The strength of this view is that it avoids the well-documented disaster of connecting meanings with ghostly entities in the mind (see Wittgenstein), and pays greater attention to communities of knowledge. Brandom has written several brilliant books and essays giving further details of this view, and using it as a kind of lens for understanding several of the “great dead” philosophers – especially Kant and Hegel.
It’s worth considering some implications of the view. One immediate consequence is: no community, no meaning. There cannot be an absolutely private language, one which captures meaning without there being even a small community around to share it. An utterance has meaning when it’s possible to say it at the right time as well as at the wrong time, and a community acts as a kind of police, disciplining its language learners into proper form by saying “Yes, that’s right” and “No, not quite.” Another consequence is that our entire world of meaning – all that we view to be true, or false, or possible, or impossible – has been shaped up over time by our communities telling us “Yes, that’s right” or “No, not quite” or, more commonly, a mix of both, coming from different sectors of our communities.
One might wonder if this is all there is to it. Imagine being introduced to a colony of noise-making entities and trying to learn their language. You tentatively try out this or that noise, and look expectantly at your new companions to see if you got it right. Little do you know that, in fact, these noise-making entities are randomly responding to you with affirmative and negative replies. It doesn’t really matter what you say, or when you say it. Could you ever get a sense of their language? No, of course not, because their language isn’t really a language: it’s just random noise, at least so far as you are concerned.
In order to turn this random noise into a brandom language (ha! couldn’t resist), there have to be some fixed patterns, some sort of system that determines when an affirmation is appropriate and when it isn’t. Once there is such a system, there’s linguistic meaning, according to inferentialism. A terrific example of this is the substance of Tom Stoppard’s play, Dogg’s Hamlet. Stoppard takes his cue from a scene familiar from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in which some builders are constructing something by issuing orders to one another. In Stoppard’s play, though, a speaker of normal English is dropped into a community of people who speak Dogg’s English, which has the same sounds as English, but the conditions of affirmation and negation are quite different. The character, and the audience, have to figure out the structure behind Dogg’s English, and the figuring out leads to great hilarity. Just when we get the hang of Dogg’s English, the players put on three versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (a short version, a very short version, and a ridiculously short version), which makes about as much sense to the players as Dogg’s English did to us, at first. And now we can hear how crazy it sounds. Community is everything.
I’m left wondering, though, about the exact difference between randomness and brandomness. Obviously, it is a difference of structure. But structure of what? I guess it must be structures of behavior, tradition, practice. And surely it is impossible to think of these without thinking of meanings. But does this show that these practical structures are meanings? Or that they are made possible by meanings? If the first, Brandom is right; if the second, he’s described a symptom rather than the actual thing.
I would like to suppose that, at the very basis of a language, the world itself is helping to impart structure. That is to say, probably the first things said in any language have to do with immediate contacts with what’s going on in the world – what animals are present, where the pointy rock is, how far it is to the water, and so on. The world provides the most fundamental affirmations and negations. Once a basic language gets off the ground, so to speak, more complicated and abstract structures can develop. (This would also mean that the greater the distance between the ground and what’s being said, the greater likelihood that what’s being said may have no meaning – a skeptical result I rather appreciate!) This doesn’t seem to be far from what Quine claimed in Word and Object.
Yet, given Brandom’s abiding interest in Hegel, I wonder if he thinks there more to the structure than can be given by its grass roots. I’m thinking of reason, of course. The “structure of inference dynamics” that constitutes linguistic meaning perhaps is infused with logic, or reason, in some deep fashion, perhaps in the way that grammar gives shape to syntax. This would mark off a position distinct from Quine’s, more rationalistic in this respect than naturalistic. It would mean that what determines our saying “Yes, that’s right” and “No, not quite” is not merely what our collisions with the world have conditioned us to say, but also what our minds have contributed: specifically, our capacity to reason logically about grammar, truth values, concepts, and possibility. As skeptical as I like to be, I have to admit that this seems a bit more plausible. It ain’t all conditioning. There must be some ghostly entities somewhere.