April 11, 2004

Andrew Jorgensen (University of Leeds)

Inferentialism and the meaning of non-denoting terms

The question is “Can we explain how non-denoting terms like ‘Father Christmas’ are meaningful?” Prima facie, there is reason to hope a linguistic theory that does not treat reference or denotation as an explanatory primitive may provide such an explanation, since its explanatory concepts are available to be used. In this paper I sketch an inferentialist account of the meaning of some non-denoting terms.

I focus not on proper names but on a certain type of label that occurs within the philosophical practice I call the statement labelling convention (SLC). Writers in analytic philosophical tradition use the SLC to highlight significant propositions or sentences for discussion and comparison in their articles. The labels of the SLC standardly label sentences or propositions. I show how we can make sense of non-denoting labels in this practice. In particular, I show how the normative structure of the SLC generates inferential (and substitutional) proprieties of the sort required by Robert Brandomís recent inferentialist theory (1994, and 2000). These inferential proprieties, and in particular the substitution inferential proprieties, give the meaning of the (non-denoting) labels at the heart of this paper. I conclude with some general remarks about how the lesson may be extended to ‘Father Christmas’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and other non-denoting singular terms.

The approach developed in the paper has some merits worth mentioning. First, I show how the meaning of non-denoting terms stems from their part in a normative social practice just as the meaning of successfully denoting terms does. Hence I show how Brandomís inferentialism provides a uniform treatment for both types of terms. This is relevant for the comparison of inferentialism with other accounts of the semantics of names. Second I head off possible squeamishness due to the apparently amorphous and versatile nature of normative social practices by beginning with a familiar (already recognised) practice that can be identified in advance of the theoretical work I expect it to do. Third, my work serves to relieve the dearth of examples in Brandom’s account of his programme (I try to actually derive the meaning of a particular expression (not a logical constant) from its place in a language game).

Posted by Greg Restall at April 11, 2004 09:59 AM
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