If I'm feeling particularly despotic I can tell my daughter to go pick me up an apple in the dining room. A couple of seconds later and I am greeted with the thunk of an apple dropping on my lap.

Somehow, my daughter understood that my request attached to a real thing in the world, namely an apple from the dining room. She understood that she was to bring the apple to another thing in the world, namely, her father. She also understood that I was referring to another thing in the world which could carry out this task, namely, her. She understood that I wanted her to 'bring' me the apple, rather than throw me the apple, or run away with the apple.

All these words conveyed to my daughter not only meaningful discourse, but specific instruction to engage herself in the world in a specific way.

How does pragmatism, which has famously (and with great care) attacked the representative function of language, account for this aspect of language?

How does the pragmatist account for the fact that our words attach to reality?

  • To pragmatists reality is not a realm of independent things residing out there, although that is a fine picture for everyday purposes, reality is that which resists us when we act. The experience of observing and interacting with you and other adults "trained" your daughter to respond to certain utterances with certain actions, "she realized", "she understood", and the rest of your semantic analysis is seen as a mentalistic rationalization of it after the fact. See philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/34384/…
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 23:46
  • You mention the experience of my daughter "observing and interacting with [me] and other adults", and I am confused as to how this statement about adults is any different than my statement about things such as apples. The pragmatist refers to behavior patterns that arise in a given environment and in certain individuals. Whatever sense these environments exist so as to have the power to shape an individual's behavior is the sense with which I refer to things in the world. My point is that a part of our behavior is interacting with things upon hearing instructions. Our words attach to the world
    – Goob
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 14:24
  • in the same sense that the pragmatists' descriptions of an environment in which a person is trained to behave in a certain way attaches to said environment. The question is in what sense pragmatists allow for this referential function of language. You seem to think that pragmatists have managed to avoid the referential function of language. I do not share that assumption, and think that on the contrary it is an unavoidable aspect of our language.
    – Goob
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 14:27
  • There is a difference between practical and philosophical description. Philosophically, there is no "world" to attach to, that is co-created in various activities along with the words used to describe it, both historically and developmentally. Of course, once we already have a pre-conceptualized "world" we might as well describe our activities as taking place in it, at least in routine situations, along with the practical reference talk. When this picture breaks down is when something novel needs to be confronted and conceptualized, so the as-if talk is no longer productive.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 0:39

2 Answers 2


Pragmatism in philosophy is much like behaviorism in psychology. So I like to think of this in terms of a behaviorist bird box where a pigeon gets food for learning to peck a given button under given circumstances.

Do you honestly think the bird attaches meaning to the buttons, and thinks of itself as communicating the wish for food through the button? The odds are that the bird is doing something less conceptual. And in fact, in responding to language, so are we. But we have a built-in sense of meaning that reinterprets what we are doing in terms of representation because we as humans have learned a theory of mind.

We think of language in terms of representations because we experience life in stories, so that we can share it more readily. But we know from physiology experiments that the representation comes alongside rather than before the act. We start acting before we are done forming the representation. The two processes happen in parallel, rather than representation happening and then meaning being ascribed afterward. Therefore, our activity is not a result of representational manipulations. Unless it is really complicated, it is basic response, like the bird's. This means there is something below the level of representation that makes language work.

We do still form and store the representation, anyway, describing our own action to ourselves in case we need to share it or reprocess it later. But the representation is really just about storage and communication, and is not a basic aspect of meaning.

This means that our words 'attach to reality' not to interpret the world to ourselves, but to render it communicable. And again, we learn communication and interpretation by success and failure, and not by parsing. We impose that later, and it is a separate refinement process. Think about how many turns of phrase you use that make no literal sense. If you needed to have the language parse out right and find representations in your mind for the respective parts in order to use it to listen or speak, those would disappear from the lexicon.

And from an "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" point of view, look at how languages evolve from more complex grammar (like Sanskrit and Attic Greek) to more analytic grammar (like English and Chinese). This tells us that the process of rationalizing and representationalizing language progresses over time from a muddled parallel process (where the meaning is distributed over many words via endings or combinations) into a more linear one (where words more and more stand alone and take the same consistent, uninflected form). Languages get richer in vocabulary and connotation over time, but less complex and nuanced grammatically. If we really relied upon representationalism to base our use of language, we would need to start simple and build.


pragmatists do not attack the representational role (or function) of language. what they attack is the alleged *explanatory role * of the concept of representation.

words do not "attach" to anything - that would be representationalism. the reason you and your daughter are able to conduct jointly successful discourse wrt apple is that you have both been trained by normative institutions: rewards and punishments involving words like "apple" and things like apples. you both learn what sorts of behaviors are treated as correct where apple-talk is involved. this is understandable in completely naturalistic terms, without anything mysterious like "representation", or any idea of "attachments".

  • Perhaps I used the wrong words. I was wondering more so just what determines something to be 'normative', and how a pragmatist could answer this question effectively by the standards he or she has for themselves regarding meaning. In short, how is it that apple, the real thing, comes to be associated the word 'apple', not merely in the sense of the adoption of some behavior, but more so how it is the case that we can connect the two in the first place, how the behavior is possible and what is involved in the behavior.
    – Goob
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 1:55
  • @Goob: re:"what determines something to be 'normative'". The simple answer is: practice. Normative practice is the unexplained explainer. The reason "apple" means apple is because that's the way we talk around here. Not because there is some mysterious referential relation between the word and the thing. you can think of a normative practice as a kind of rule, but it cannot be an abstract or unconscious rule "object" that we follow or obey - that's Wittgenstein's lesson. it's our practices that associate word and thing.
    – user20153
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 20:03
  • We might end our search for explanation in 'practice' but I don't see why we should. There are different normative practices. Why? What caused one practice to exist rather than another? Aren't these valid questions?
    – Goob
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 21:10
  • those are great questions! and they involve the classic problems, like circularity and regress. Maybe we can get the Great @Conifold to weigh in. in any case this is turning into a discussion which is fine by me but might annoy the Stackexchange Gods.
    – user20153
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 21:15
  • It is getting quite humorous switching from one string of comments to another. Almost like playing a game of tag.
    – Goob
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 21:20

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