Pragmatism contends that use should be stressed when talking about the meaning of words before 'representation'.

But what if we were to look at signification/representation as a sort of activity?

If the pragmatist discredits 'representationalism' on the grounds that discussion about the meaning of words requires a prerequisite ability to use words in a certain way, why should this have any weight against theories of representation that recognize the place of public use in talking about meaning, but which nevertheless hold that meaning is sometimes representational in its use?

These theories of meaning might contend that any word is meaningful in the way that it is used, but that in certain uses words are representational/significant of things.

This theory contains no explicit appeal to 'private representations' nor any other such noise that the pragmatist typically jeers at.

It would seem that several theories of meaning that predate the Cartesian theory of mind would fit such a bill.

Would this offend the pragmatist?

What about representation is a problem for the pragmatist?


2 Answers 2


I do not think that there is any issue with viewing signification as an activity, in fact this is how pragmatists view it since Peirce. In modern terms, pragmatism asserts semantic and epistemological priority of knowledge how over knowledge that, so representation is viewed as a special kind of performance. The problem begins when we look into the status of what it is representational of. This brings up the issue of reference, correspondence to "reality", and is closely related to the realism/anti-realism divide. Szubka in On the Very Idea of Brandom’s Pragmatism speaks directly to your suggestion:

"Perhaps anything which is performed by us will count as a doing or action, and it won’t be necessary to describe it in some selected vocabulary (e.g. in physical, biological, behavioral, or functional one) in order to invoke it in understanding or explanation of propositional contentful beliefs and knowledge. However, by allowing advocates of global pragmatism such a latitude in this matter, one puts their view at risk of being easily trivialized."

Brandom in Pragmatics and Pragmatisms describes pragmatism "as a movement centered on the primacy of the practical, initiated already by Kant, whose twentieth-century avatars include not only Peirce, James and Dewey, but also the early Heidegger, the later Wittgenstein, and such figures as Quine, Sellars, Davidson and Rorty". Ryle, Merleau-Ponty, Polanyi and Dreyfus can also be added to this list. This is a big tent with plenty of room for realism, even materialism (Davidson), quasi-realism (Kant, Quine, Sellars), and anti-realism all the way (Rorty). Moreover, Dummet, who believes that representational and pragmatic aspects are too intertwined for either to have primacy, is nonetheless an anti-realist.

However, pragmatism is opposed to "intellectualism, the doctrine that every implicit mastery of a propriety of practice is ultimately to be explained by appeal to a prior explicit grasp of a principle". Since reference to a conceptualized object does involve "grasp of a principle" any description involving it can not be first in the order of explanation. So it is not that representational use "offends" pragmatists, it is rather that its representational character is in a sense moot. Let me give an analogy: classical objects are interesting and practically important formations in quantum theory, they are unsuitable for formulating the quantum theory.

Representational activities, truth-conditional semantics that articulates them, etc., are certainly rich and interesting topics, but they are secondary in semantics/epistemology. As Brandom puts it, “explicit theoretical beliefs can be made intelligible only against a background of implicit practical abilities”, it would be self-defeating to reference a pre-conceptualized ontology of said beliefs in articulating the said background. The "first" task is to describe how conceptualized ontologies are formed, then we can decide how seriously to take them, and how much, and in what contexts, to use them. Quine, who is a more sympathetic to your position kind of pragmatist, splits it this way in Theories and Things:

"The scientific system, ontology and all, is a bridge of our own making... But I also expressed my unswerving belief in external things — people, nerve endings, sticks, stones. This I reaffirm. I believe also, if less firmly, in atoms and electrons and classes."

Davidson, Quine's student, developed a truth-conditional semantics which is broadly pragmatist. See Verheggen's How Social Must Language Be? on his triangulation procedure, which ties practice to reference along the lines that you may perhaps find more agreeable.

  • I'm interested in what sense explicit knowledge is secondary in the order of explanation. It is one thing to point out that implicit knowledge is a necessary condition for explicit knowledge. It is another thing to claim that as such it has some explanatory power over explicit knowledge when it comes to accounting for a word's meaning, for an epistemological question, or for any other concern of philosophy. What qualifies the leap from pointing out 'y being a condition of x' to stating 'y is of a more primary explanatory value than x'?
    – Goob
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 21:08
  • @Goob As I pointed out in philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/38564/… this is not a traditional argument for a position. Pragmatists simply do not believe that representational semantics can resolve its epistemological, etc., problems, and are offering an alternative. Whether it is a better alternative only time will tell. Again an analogy: one did not need to argue that wave functions were more primary than classical particles, only offer a better theory where they were.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 22:23
  • But the analogy with quantum theory offers a motivation at least, if not an argument. One of the issues is that we can not set up a proper justificatory relation between the propositional content and reality representationally (Myth of the Given), because propositions can only be justified by propositions. The idea then is to embed propositions into a broader class of items (activities), and to extend the range of justifications beyond the range of propositions/representations. This parallels placing classical particles into a broader space of quantum states that can evolve into/from them.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 23:32

I'm not sure pragmatists would deny that words have representational uses. what they deny is the notion that representation has any explanatory significance. iow, you cannot explain correct usage by referring to representation. e.g. correct use of a word like "apple" cannot be explained by appealing to the (alleged) "fact" that "apple" refers to or represents an apple. they turn it around and argue that the notion of representation can be explained in terms of use. iow, the reason we take "apple" to refer is because of the way it functions in use.

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