“What” by Inferential Semantics

Brandom’s inferential semantics can be seen as providing a general framework for answering “what is…” questions. Semantics is about meaning — especially of concrete things said — and inferential semantics is about understanding meaning as a kind of practical doing involved with reasons. Looked at this way, a meaning reflects an inferential role, or role in real-world reasoning. Such roles always have two sides — conditions for appropriate use, and consequences of using this rather than that. Brandom identifies conceptual content with such inferential roles, and focuses on a contrast between these and simple definition, but I want to emphasize instead that all simple definition should be understood as a kind of summary of what implicitly distinguishes a particular inferential role from others.

The kind of meaning of interest here is in principle shareable rather than subjective, private, or psychological. Meaning is social and essentially involved with communication, but it is not a matter of empirical fact. Rather than explaining communication in terms of empirical facts, we should ultimately explain what we call empirical facts in terms of well-founded shareable meaning. The more we are able to explicitly spell out conditions of use and consequences of things that are said, the more substantive content we can share with others.

The “what is…” questions classically asked by Plato and Aristotle have an open-ended character because they are concerned with what something means for a reasoning being in general, which is an open-ended context. To have meaning for a reasoning being is to make a difference in the way the being reasons in life. In this way, Plato and Aristotle also were deeply concerned with the inferential roles of things, and practiced a kind of inferential semantics. This is ultimately inseparable from questions of goodness of reasoning. Here, too, inferential semantics depends on normative pragmatics.