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Pragmatism is strongly associated with anti-realism, the view that words are meaningful not because they represent a reality independent of the word itself but because of how they are used in a given environment.

As to the question of how words have specific meaning, pragmatists typically refer to the normativity of word usage, which in turn is determined by society's use of the word. So the individual adapts a behavior that is prevalent in a society. There is some normative use of a word by other people under different conditions and the individual by some relation to these people and the conditions of word usage in the society come to use words in a like manner.

If the pragmatist is to hold on to the anti-realist view however, it seems that they must answer in what sense they distinguish between word, individual and society and how these predications are not contradictory to the anti-realism thesis that words do not represent or refer to a reality existent beyond them.

If we should understand how words come to have meaning by the environment in which they are used and the people who use them, it is difficult to see how this answer is not in some way referential to things that are taken to be existent independent of words (i.e, individuals and environments).

  • Existence independent of words does not have to (fundamentally) take the form of pre-existent things in a realist ontology. Reality works as a constraint on our activities, including linguistic and cognitive ones. These complex interactions are eventually sorted out into people, words, societies, intentions, feelings, etc., but that comes as a result of active cognitive work, it is co-shaped by us and reality, and does not pre-exist in a ready-made form. The environment comes to have meaning by our actions, including the use of words, not the other way around. – Conifold Sep 27 '16 at 17:43
  • I don't understand your next-to-last paragraph. can you clarify? – user20153 Sep 27 '16 at 19:38
  • regarding your title question: I do not think card-carrying anti-realists do or must deny that words have a referential function . on the contrary; some words (like "electron") do have such a function (play such a role); the task is to explain this role without relying on reference as an "explanatory" notion. so yes, they are faced with this problem, but no, they do not have to take reference-qua-explanation "for granted". they try to show (as they must) how the referential functions of ordinary language can be explained pragmatically, without any prior notion of reference. – user20153 Sep 27 '16 at 19:49
  • @mobileink That paragraph is pretty unclear. I meant to say that it seems that in addition to thinking of words as a category of being, the pragmatist in explaining what makes a word meaningful has to include also the categories of being individual and environment which have an existence independent of the words 'individual' and 'environment'. The two words are referencing things that exist independently of the words themselves. But this seems in contrast to most anti-realist sentiments. – Goob Sep 28 '16 at 1:21
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    @Goob: I can honestly say that Brandom changed my (intellectual) life, which is a lot more than you can say for most philosophers. "Reason in Philosophy" is another great one. See esp. "Why truth is not important in philosophy". plus he has an awesome beard. – user20153 Sep 28 '16 at 22:17

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