Reasoning with Attitude

Here is a familiar thought, one that many of us find attractive:

For some classes of sentence, their primary semantic role is not to report a special class of facts but rather to express certain attitudes.

Moral claims are a paradigm case for this sort of treatment. The idea that such claims are referential in nature, aiming to track moral facts which are out there in the world independently of us (so to speak) is metaphysically puzzling, to say the least. A rival expressivist account looks prima facie attractive. If, in even the loosest sense, meaning is use, then the semantic story about moral discourse should surely be rooted in its use to express, share, and engender attitudes. Or so the story goes. And expressionism about other areas of discourse too can look attractive: think, for example, of Ramsey’s idea of attributions of probability (or at least some classes of these) as expressing degrees of beliefs. Perhaps modal judgments too can be handled in this way, without mystery-mongering: a judgment that P is necessary expresses something about P‘s special role as a fixed point in our web of belief, rather than magically latching onto facts regarding other possible worlds, whatever that can mean.

Here is another familiar thought, also one that many of us  find attractive:

For some classes of expression, their primary semantic role is to be explained by their role in inference.

For example, it is the introduction and elimination rules governing our inferential moves with the logical connectives that basically capture their meaning. Or so the story goes. And a more wide-ranging inferentialist semantics has its attractions. Maybe, unlike inferentialism about individual logical operators, the more general story will need to talk more holistically about the role of an expression in a whole wider inferential practice which mediates between experiencing the world and acting on it — think, for example, of Sellars. But again that chimes with a pragmatist, meaning-is-use, stance.

Given the separate attraction of these general ideas, it looks an obvious move to see what we can get by putting them together. And indeed, it could well be that they can help each other out in crucial ways. Think, for example, of the Frege-Geach problem for expressivism, which has it that naive expressivism can’t account for those unasserted uses of moral claims (as in the antecedents of conditionals) which aren’t expressing attitudes — we need an account of the inferential role of such claims. Or in the other direction, think how an inferentialism about logical connectives could perhaps be improved by appeal to reflections about the  role of negation in expressing an attitude of rejection or about the way that conditionals engage with expressing suppositional modes of thought.

It looks, then, as though there could very well be work to be done by an expressivist take on inferentialism or an inferentialist take on expressivism. So it is surprising then that no one has explicitly set out to put our two themes together like that. Until now. For this is the prospectus of the new book by Luca Incurvati and Julian Schlöder, Reasoning with Attitude: Foundations and Applications of Inferential Expressivism.

A central contention of this book is that, their differences notwithstanding, expressivism and inferentialism are best seen as opposing referentialism on the basis of the same pragmatist insight: that semantic explanations should not go beyond what is needed to explain the role of words in our practices. Expressivists focus on the attitudes that words are used to express; inferentialists focus on the inferences that words are used to draw. In this book, we lay the foundations for inferential expressivism, a theory of meaning which countenances both aspects of our linguistic practice and explains meaning in terms of the inferences we draw involving the attitudes we express.

This promises, then, to be a really engaging, ground-breaking book. I’m (with regrets!) not going to break my self-denying ordinance and start blogging about it right now instead of finishing the category theory books, though I have started reading Reasoning with Attitude with considerable enjoyment.

And you too might want to make a start, to see whether the book’s themes and approach appeals. For you can freely do so. I’m delighted to report that the authors’ research grant has enabled OUP to publish the book under their open-access scheme. You can download it here.

1 thought on “Reasoning with Attitude”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top