Two meanings of ” depends on ” that are easily conflated.

Kind of referenceSenseReference
Meaning of ” depends on you can’t understand unless you understand you can’t have existing without existing
Flavor of dependenceEpistemologicalOntological

Robert Brandom points out that we can have sense dependence without having reference dependence.

Response-dependent properties, e.g. a toy concept of beauty: ” is beautiful if looking at it elicits pleasure in people.”

  • This is asserting a sense dependence of beauty on people, but not a reference dependence.
  • It is intelligible that there could exist beautiful sunsets before there ever were people in the world, or if people never existed.


“Parent” and “child” are both reciprocally sense- and reference- dependent.

Historical relevance

This is the difference between Berkeley’s idealism and Kant’s transcendental idealism. When someone claims the lawfulness of a relation between two properties is a feature of our cognitive faculties, it makes a big difference whether this is a sense or reference dependence claim.

  • Without understanding what it is for you to follow a rule / to infer from , you can’t understand the lawfulness that you’re taking the world to have.
  • This does not entail a reference dependence.