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Note on Sellars’ style

  • He preferered the ‘Mystery story’ style:
    • There’s a problem, and many competing potential explanations
    • These explanations engage each other dialectically
    • Only at the end would you learn the philosopher’s actual position
  • In contrast to the ‘Journalistic’ style:
    • Tell them what you’re going to tell them
    • Tell them
    • Tell them what you told them

Material inferences

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Sellars has two good ideas associated with material inference:

  1. There are some inferences that are good, not in virtue of their logical form.
  2. Turn the above thought on its head and say: we can understand the content of these descriptive terms in terms of the materially good inferences they appear in (as premises or conclusions).

By this account, material proprieties of inference are more fundamental than / conceptually prior to logical validity. You have to start with the notion of a good inference in order to understand what a logically good inference is.

Aside on the philosophy of logic

Aside: It took a while in the 20th century to realize that logic was not about logical truth but rather about validity of inference. In classical logic can you treat these interchangably, but not all (rough logics vs smooth logics - whether the consequence relation can be determined by the set of all theorems). Dummett has written about this issue.

What if we picked some other vocabulary (other than logical) to hold fixed? E.g. substituting non-theological vocabulary for non-theological vocabulary. “If justice is loved by the gods then justice is pious”. If no matter what we substitute for justice the inference is good, we might say the sentence is true in virtue of its theological form.

Philosophy of logic (See Quine’s and Putnam’s books both titled The Philosophy of Logic) has two classic questions:

  1. a demarcation question: what makes something logical vocabulary?
    • Quine disallows second order quantifiers and the epilson of set theory, whereas Putnam allows them.
  2. a correctness question: which logical consequence relation to use:
    • Classical? Intuitionistic? etc.

Sellars challenges this tradition (logical empiricism) by pointing out there is a concern conceptually prior in the order of explanation to philosophy of logic: materially good inferences.

Inference and Meaning

  • A main argument of Inference and Meaning is that any language that makes essential use of non-logical, descriptive vocabulary must be understood as having that vocabulary standing in materially good (rather than just logically good) inferences.

  • A slogan for this: “Concepts as involving laws (and inconceivable without them)”

    • This is actually the title of an unintelligible essay by Sellars
    • Luckily the title is the thesis, and that much is intelligible
  • Sellars claims logical vocabulary has the expressive job of making explicit the material proprieties of inference that articulate the content of non-logical concepts.

  • More specifically than ‘logical’, he means alethic modal vocabulary: i.e. what’s necessary and what’s possible.

  • Historical note: Frege is more explicit about this point than Sellars: that you can use this to distinguish logical vocabulary.

  • The Montaigne example highlights the difference between the capacity to use material inferences vs making that inference explicit:

    • Dan Dennett argues that we have to take animals as grasping modus ponens because they treat some inferences as good and others as bad
    • Sellars objects, saying that you could make explicit the practical capacity the animal has via a statement of disjunctive syllogism
    • But what is the surplus value of invoking that explicit expression? (Over simply describing what is the dog can do).
  • Talking about following rules very quickly gets into the regress of rules.

    • There have to be some practical moves you’re just allowed to make without them having to take the form of explicit premises (see What the Tortoise said to Achilles.
    • Sellars touches upon this in Some reflections on language games.
      • He talks about free/auxillary positions that you’re always allowed to occupy.
      • We could have the auxillary position which would license us to move from a position to a position , but we could also encode this with position for each possible move (, , …).
      • He ways that we could imagine replacing positions with moves, but it’s not possible to imagine all moves being replaced with positions (‘a game without moves is Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark’).
  • Sellars is addressing tradition that wants some small set of explicit principles in accordance with which to reason. Any inference you think is good that isn’t derivable from that small set of principles (e.g. modus ponens) is actually an infamy (has some suppressed premises). This is early analytic philosophy’s embrace of the new logic. Sellar’s contrary view (radical at the time) is that actually the reasoning could be completely in order, just with material proprieties of reasoning. You can still give/ask for reasons and mean that , but what the logic does is give you meta-linguistic control to talk about what is a good inference and say that is a good inference.1

  • Example: where is “she asked me to hand her the dish towel” and is “I shall hand her the dish towel”. Traditional analytic philosophy will call this an infamy, since it does not explicitly state how her request engages my motivational structure. Sellars would want to say that this invocation of the desire makes explicit the endorsement of rather than referring to some item of the world.

  • Brandom: logic is the organ of semantic self-consciousness. The set of concepts that lets us bring our endorsement of some inferences as good/bad (this endorsement as something that reasons can be given or asked for) into the game of giving/asking for reasons.

  • Sellars complains about Carnap treating logical consequence as a syntactically definable relation between sentences. Just writing down the rules under a heading ‘rules’ instead of ‘axioms’ isn’t making explicit the normative force they have (it leaves out the rulishness - that a rule is a rule for doing something). This is a subtle point that doesn’t matter for many purposes, but Sellars believes it’s important if you want to understand what’s going on with reasoning. Again, strong connection between this point and Achilles and the Tortoise.

  • “There’s an important difference between logical / modal / normative predicates on the one hand, and such predicates as ‘red’ on the other.” There’s nothing to the formal except their role in reasoning, indeed, their role and make as meta linguistics sort of making explicit something about the ground level. For the latter, he wants to argue that these predicates too are meaningful insofar as their role in reasoning, but it’s less obvious.

  • “Red is a quality”. This conveys the same information as the syntactical sentence ”Red is a one place predicate.” See quote. What you’re doing in asserting that premise from which to reason (couched in modal vocabulary) is endorsing a principle in accordance with which to reason (couched in normative vocabulary).

  • We cannot completely identify modal and normative statements with each other. Their relation is characterized by the say/convey distinction.

Say/convey distinction

When I say “copper melts at 1084 degrees” one makes a claim that is true even if there were no reasoners (so it can’t be a claim directly about inferences being good). What it conveys is about inferences, not what it says. Likewise, I say “The sun is shining” while I convey “I believe the sun is shining.”

It might help to make progress toward understanding the say/convey distinction (which Sellars admits he’s not clear about) by distinguishing two flavors of inference:

  1. semantic inference: good in virtue of the contents of the premises and the conclusion
  2. pragmatic inference: good in virtue of what you’re doing in asserting the premises or the conclusion.
    • e.g. John says ‘your book is terrible’ and I infer that he’s mad at me
    • Geech embedding distinction between the two: we look at whether we’d endorse “My book is terrible, then John is mad at me”. Because we wouldn’t, we know the inference is pragmatic.

Do subjunctive conditionals describe possible worlds?

Potential counterargument against Sellars: subjunctive conditionals are not making explicit proprieties of inference, but in fact are descriptions about possible worlds. To address this, we note there are separate issues.

Firstly, there’s the question about whether it’s intelligible to have descriptive vocabulary in play in a context where there’s no counterfactual reasoning. E.g. Hume believes he understands empirical facts perfectly well (the cat is on the mat) but not statements about what’s possible and necessary. But Kant saw that this isn’t intelligible - you need to make a distinction about what’s possible with the cat and what’s not (it’s possible for the cat to not be on the mat, but not possible for it to be larger than the sun) or else there’s nothing you could say about the content of the concept of ‘cat’ that I’ve got ( it would be just a label).

The second issue is the codifiability of proprieties of material inference by logical vocabulary: whether a possible worlds analysis is incompatible with seeing subjunctive conditionals as making properties of inference explicit. Sellars would like to see a possible worlds analysis that matches up.

Some Reflections on Language Games

Regulism (conceptual norms as a matter of explicit rules) vs regularism (norms in terms of actual regularities). These are identified with empiricist and rationalist approaches.

One purpose: “I shall have a chief my present purpose if I’ve made plausible the idea that an organism might come to play a language game, that is to move from position to position, the system of moves and positions, and to do it because of the system without having to obey rules, and hence without having to be playing a meta language game.” (Section 18)

He doesn’t explicitly mention Wittgenstein (who is a pariah in philosophy). (Other times he uses astrices to censor his name). Thinking about language in terms of rules is Kantian. His notion of norms was juridical/jurisprudential. A rule that enjoins the doing of an action A is a sentence in some language, which requires more rules to interpret (regress - how do we deal with it?). Kant identified this regress (A132/B171) - “judgment is a peculiar talent that can be practiced only and not taught”. Which is using distinction between things that can be shown (by examples) vs taught. Wittgenstein addresses this regress in the late 100’s of PI.

Rejecting mere conformity: If we just consider conforming to a rule rather than obeying a rule, there’s no regress, but we lose the normativity.

“[Mere conformity people] claim that it’s raining therefore the streets will be wet (when it isn’t an infamatic abridgement of a formally valid argument) is merely the manifestation of a tendency to expect to see the wet streets when one finds it’s raining. In this latter case, it’s a manifestation of a process which at best can only simulate inference, since it’s a habitual transition, and as such not governed by a principle or rule by reference to which can be characterized as valid or invalid. That Hume dignified the activation of an association with the phrase ‘causal inference’ is about a minor flaw, they continue, in an otherwise brilliant analysis. It should, however, be immediately pointed out that before one has a right to say that what Hume calls ‘causal inference’ really is an inference at all, but merely a habitual transition from one thought to another. And contrast that with in this context, the genuine logical inferences which are, one must pay the price of showing just how logical inference is something more than a mere habitual transition empiricists in the human tradition have rarely paid this price, a fact which is proved most unfortunate for the following reason. An examination of the history of the subject shows that those who have held that causal inference only simulates inference proper have been led to do so as a result of the conviction that if it were a genuine inference, the laws of nature, things that govern this would be discovered to us by pure reason. As they’re thinking of what’s a good inference having to be something that’s transparent merely by introspection in the way that the laws of logic are.” (him making point about distinction of r eal inferences and mere associations. )

No distinction between correct and incorrect can be made by purely pointing to regularity - as Wittgenstein pointed out, you’ll always find some regularity (there’s some elegant rule that generates the sequence, for any arbitrary sequence). This is also called ’disjunctivitis’ or ‘gerrymandering’ objections.

“what’s denied is the playing a game logically involves obedience to the rules of the game. And hence the ability to use the language to play the language game in which the rules are formulated.” (page 29) Need a sense of playing the game stronger than conforming but weaker than having the rules in mind.

Metaphysicus suggests why not a non-linguistic awareness of the rules? This is its own regress.

We’ve tacitly accepted so far and the dialectic dichotomy between merely conforming to the rules and obey. But surely this is a false dichotomy. Is there something in between, for it required us to suppose that the only way in which a complex system of activity can be involved in the explanation of the occurrence of a particular act is by the agent explicitly envisaging the system and intending its realization. And that’s as much as to say that unless the agent conceives of the system, the conformity of his behavior to the system must be accidental.

  • So what’s needed he’s saying, is going to be something that says, look, there’s an explanation of why he conforms to the rules. That invokes the rules, but it doesn’t invoke them by him being aware of them. One example of this is teleosemantics. See Bee Waggle.

The essential thing for Kant was a distinction between what was between acting according to a rule and acting according to a conception of a rule, or a representation (Vorstellung) of a rule. So, ordinary natural objects act according to rules, the laws of nature, but we act according to representations of rules / to conceptions of rules.

The explanation as to why I use the word ‘purple’ for purple things, the rule plays a crucial part even if it is not in my head. It is in the teachers’ heads (they’re already in the language and can conceive of rules). So the rule is causally antecedent to my behavior, so I can be following the rule (without regress).

Related quesiton addressed here: classical behaviorism.

How is it that I can apply a concept according to norms, to invoke a pre-linguistic awareness of universals, that’s going to be a given. And the key thing is, because that pre-linguistic awareness is conceived of as providing reasons for me to do this. It’s not just that I’ve been trained to respond to some physiological thing by doing it (that would be okay. That could be part of the the real explanation, the pattern governed explanation). It’s that that pre-linguistic awareness provides reasons. And the claim is reasons are always making a move in a game that’s making the inferential move. And the question is: what determines the norms that govern that? Then we’re off on the on the regress, again, so we’ve got to have some story that doesn’t have that form. The form of the argument against the myth of the given. It’s the idea that the awareness that givenness provides something that can serve as a reason, but is itself not dependent on our having learned a language, having a conceptual scheme, and so on.

To do: understand language entry transitions and language exit transitions.

There is debate (but it should be more of a bigger deal, in Brandom’s opinion) about what are the minimal features needed for one to have a discursive language practice. Brandom views logical language as optional (though the expressive power would be incredibly stunted, you could still give and ask for reasons). MacDowell and Sellars think otherwise, that there can’t be discourse without a meta-language.

Sellars needs the notion of language to be something that evolves over time (rather than an instantaneous collection of rules) because we want the decision to make a material move to occur within a language (one is not doing redescription in another language).


  1. However, Sellars doesn’t extrapolate from this that logic is an optional superstructure in our lives - we need to be able to think and talk about the goodness of inferences.