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The Primacy of Practice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 September 2019

José L. Zalabardo*
University College London


I argue that our procedures for determining whether ascriptions of a predicate represent things as being a certain way are ultimately pragmatic. Pragmatic procedures are not subject to validation by the referential procedure – determining whether there is a property playing the role of its referent. Predicates can represent even if we can't provide an independent identification of its referent. For these predicates, the speakers’ knowledge of how they represent objects as being would have to be construed in terms of the ascription practices they associate with the predicates. The same approach can be applied to semantic predicates, such as ‘is representational’ or ‘refers to’. They can be treated as representational even if we can't provide an independent identification of their referents. The availability of this position undermines accounts of the referents of semantic predicates in naturalistic terms.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2019 

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I am grateful to Javier González de Prado Salas and Huw Price for their comments on this material.


1 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, 4th ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009)Google Scholar, §11.

2 Op. Cit., §12.

3 Op. Cit., §23.

4 The later Wittgenstein also thought that what we classify as representation encompasses a wide variety of functions. See Price, Huw, ‘Immodesty without Mirrors: Makind Sense of Wittgenstein's Linguistic Pluralism’, in Naturalism Without Mirrors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)Google Scholar. I won't be engaged with this point here.

5 Ayer, A. J., Language, Truth, and Logic (London: Victor Gollancz, 1936), 103Google Scholar.

6 See Mackie, J.L., Ethics: Inventing the Right and the Wrong (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977)Google Scholar.

7 I have in mind the kind of criteria explored by Crispin Wright in his project of inflating deflationism, although I'm not endorsing the specific criteria that he proposed. See Wright, Crispin, Truth and Objectivity (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992)Google Scholar. A pragmatic criterion for representational character is put forward in de Prado Salas, Javier González, ‘Relativism and the Expressivist Bifurcation’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 48 (2018), 357–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 See in this connection the view that global pragmatism faces a ‘no-exit’ problem. See Blackburn, Simon, ‘Pragmatism: All or Some?’, in Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 7879Google Scholar, and Kraut, Robert, ‘Three Carnaps on Ontology’, in Ontology after Carnap, edited by S. Blatti and S. Lapointe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)Google Scholar.

9 This claim can be challenged. Robert Kraut and Kevin Scharp have advocated “an expressivist account of what we are doing when we contrast predicates which express properties with those which don't” (Kraut, Robert and Scharp, Kevin, ‘Pragmatism without Idealism’, in The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophical Methods, edited by Daly, C. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)Google Scholar). I won't pursue this line here.

10 This is in the spirit of an argument advanced by Michael Dummett. See Dummett, Michael, ‘What Is a Theory of Meaning? (II)’, in The Seas of Language (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 4445Google Scholar.

11 This would be, broadly speaking, a version of Michael Dummett's proposal to explain meaning and understanding in terms of warranted assertibility. See, e.g., Dummett, Michael, ‘Realism’, in Truth and Other Enigmas (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978)Google Scholar. Some developments of Wittgenstein's notion of a criterion also resulted in views along these lines. See Pollock, John, ‘Criteria and our Knowledge of the Material World’, Philosophical Review 76 (1967), 2860CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 I have argued elsewhere that explicating semantic predicates by identifying their referents, as, say, truth-tracking properties of beliefs, is compatible with a practice-based approach to meaning and understanding in general. See José Zalabardo, ‘Inferentialism and Knowledge. Brandom's Arguments against Reliabilism’, Synthese (forthcoming).

13 Robert Brandom has advocated this general approach to meaning and understanding. See, e.g., Brandom, Robert, ‘Global Anti-Representationalism?’, in Expressivism, Pragmatism and Representationalism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)Google Scholar. I have used this methodology in accounts of truth (Zalabardo, José, ‘Empiricist Pragmatism’, Philosophical Issues 26 (2016), 441–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar), and propositional attitudes (José Zalabardo, ‘Belief, Desire and the Prediction of Behaviour’, Philosophical Issues 29 (forthcoming)).

14 Notice, for example, that the intrinsically motivating character of moral judgments could be easily explained if regulating the ascription of a predicate with our moral sense were a necessary condition for meaning by a predicate what we mean by one of our moral predicates. This is usually seen as an advantage of moral non-cognitivism, but the move doesn't depend in any way on ascribing to moral discourse a non-representational function.

15 If, for example, we treated regulating the ascription of a predicate by one's moral sense as necessary and sufficient for the predicate to be coreferential with our predicate ‘morally good’, we still wouldn't have necessary and sufficient conditions for an action to satisfy ‘morally good’.

16 See, e.g., Fodor, Jerry, Jerry, A. 1987. Psychosemantics. The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987)Google Scholar, ‘A Theory of Content, I: The Problem’ and ‘A Theory of Content, II: The Theory’, in A Theory of Content and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992). See also Boghossian, Paul, ‘Naturalizing Content’, in Content and Justification. Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Clarendon, 2008)Google Scholar for critical discussion.

17 See Paul Boghossian, 2008. ‘The Rule-Following Considerations’. In Content and Justification. Philosophical Papers, 31–35.

18 The normativity argument was originally advanced in Kripke, Saul, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982)Google Scholar. See Zalabardo, José, ‘Kripke's Normativity Argument’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 27 (1997), 467–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar and ‘Semantic Normativity and Naturalism’, in Continuum Companion to Philosophy of Language, edited by M. García Carpintero and M. Kölbel (London: Continuum, 2012), for discussion.

19 Thus Jerry Fodor: ‘I am darkly suspicious that the Kripkensteinian worry about the normative force of meaning is either a nonissue or just the reduction issue over again’ (‘A Theory of Content, II: The Theory’, 136).

20 See in this connection Huw Price's attack on the project of using David Lewis’ model of theoretical identification in metaphysics, in Price, Huw. 2011. ‘Naturalism without Representationalism’, in Naturalism Without Mirrors, 196–98.

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