What is the relation between pragmatism and intentionality?

Two different enterprises in philosophy seem to be well established and yet contradicting:

  1. Inferential Pragmatism: from Wittgenstein and Sellars to Rorty, Brandom and Mcdowell, There's an enterprise of explaining meaning in the way we use words in inference or behaviour. Briefly, the meaning of a proposition is determined by its inferential relations to other propositions.

  2. Intentionality: The enterprise of the naturalisation of intentionality suggests a few different ways to approach the notion of semantic content and meaning, among them teleosemantics, information semantics, or conceptual role semantics.

The theory of conceptual role semantics as proposed by Ned Block is widely rejected by most thinkers in the field for being holistic.

My question is as following:

Are the two enterprises refer to the same question when they discuss meaning?

If so, it seems like the first enterprise takes meaning to be conceptual role, while conceptual role semantics is rejected by the second enterprise. Why don't they converse with each other?

If not so, how are the two different? I suspect they might be dealing with different subjects since the first enterprise is epistemological while the second is in the philosophy of mind. Yet, to me, it seems like both, in the end, want to say something about the nature of intentionality.

  • The commentary on Sellar's EPM by DeVries and Triplett takes Sellars to say that meaning is about a conceptual role in word-word and word-world relations. Without being able to read through all the material at this time, may it be that Block fails to make the difference between epistemic roles of propositions like in perception (word-world) and logical roles of propositions (word-word)?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 7:41
  • 1
    @PhilipKlöcking, can you say more about it? or recommend some related reading materials?
    – Amit Hagin
    Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 11:35
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    I am not sure Fodor-Lepore 1993 amounts to "widely rejected by most thinkers in the field for being holistic". In a much more recent IEP article Whiting writes "Currently, many view CRS as the main rival to theories that take notions such as truth or reference as central". I do think they are directed at the same phenomenon, but emphasize different aspects of it. "Reductivists" try to build models of meaning in the narrow sense, work bottom up, and emphasize regularities; "holists" and inferentialists are interested in the wider context, work top down, and emphasize peculiarities.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 21:08

2 Answers 2


I see the two enterprises as approaching overlapping terrain from different directions. Those in the "naturalization of intentionality" camp want to build up to meaning (or intentional or representational content) from more basic concepts of biology and engineering (the concepts of what Dennett calls "the design stance") like "function" and "purpose." Those in the "inferential pragmatism" camp want to derive the meanings of words from the meanings of propositions and the meanings of propositions from their inferential relations with other propositions (or world-to-proposition inferential relations like when sensory perception justifies a proposition, or proposition-to-world inferential relations like when a proposition justifies an action). So it is a kind of top-down versus bottom-up approach (if we consider language top and biology bottom). I do think the two enterprises can meet in the middle and constructively connect complementary theories from either direction in ways that are consistent and coherent. But there are myriad ways this might happen because each enterprise encompasses a wide array of different theories in itself.


The answer above is instructive: I will add some additional points.

The question is this: what is the nature of (linguistic) meaning?

(1): The "mentalist" claims that linguistic meaning is grounded in mental intentionality. This is Fodor, Dretske, Millikan. They will then ground mental intentionality via causation, function, etc.

(2): The inferentialist grounds at least some linguistic representation via the nonrepresentational, ie use. This is Wittgenstein, Dummett, Brandom. Note that there are few (if any) proponents today who believe that all of linguistic representation can be grounded without the explanatory resources of the mental.

(3): The camps are very much so in conversation with one another, but much of this conversation is disagreement. See any of the classics on CRS (or following replies) to see that this is indeed the case.

(4): Interest in inferentialism appears to have waned with respect to the glory days of analytic philosophy. Indeed, philosophy of mind is a far more interesting field today than is philosophy of language. This might be due to an implicit acceptance of (1) but also there are new results in neurobiology, computational theory of mind, etc from other fields to interact with. Meanwhile I suspect most philosophers do not believe that phil lang is as important as it was once purported to be, say, by the early analytics- Russell, Witt.

(5): Further the distinctions grow increasingly blurry. Some CRS proponents will say that CRS is compatible with a mentalist approach via taking a terms conceptual role in mentalese. Further Brandom- a clear inferentialist- does not place language or the mental in explanatory priority of the other - see Making it Explicit.

(6): one last point, for fun. Of course, there are those who are meaning skeptics- Kripkenstein, etc. Typically these arguments hinge on a particular notion of meaning, by arguing that such a notion fails or is incompatible with either best science or best philosophy. So some (very few?) will deny that meaning exists.

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