(2) A Way Out So if we want a perspicuous global oversight of our use of language, we should relax the BAN.
And it seems to me that this is what has happened. Contemporary pragmatists such as Brandom, Price, or Michael Williams have no wish to avoid talking about our environment in common-sense terms. They rightly see our doings as primarily concerned with actions in this environment. Rather the pragmatism is identified in terms of the avoidance of a semantic metavocabulary in favour of a pragmatic metavocabulary. In other words our doings with language are not to be described (as we give our übersichtliche Darstellung) in terms of representation, description, truth, and fact, for example, but in such terms as ‘the language game of giving and asking for reasons’. I shall call this the SBAN. We can conform to it while happily talking in terms of we ourselves, our social-deontic relations, and above all our causal relations with the surrounding environment on both the input and output side (in Price’s terms, we are happy enough with e-representation)
The motivation of the BAN was relatively straightforward. What is the motivation for the SBAN? Not, now, avoiding ontological commitment, at least to everyday things (this implies that an SBAN would not by itself serve a traditional expressivist’s purpose. For example, we expressivists frown when someone like Parfit talks happily of intuiting moral values, although ‘intuiting’ is an epistemological, not a semantic term). Brandom has helpfully interpreted Richard Rorty’s commitment to the SBAN in terms of (i) refusing to countenance self-interpreting presences, or in other words refusing to allow ‘representations’ without accounts of what is done in taking one thing as standing for another, (ii) suspicion of semantic atomism: we must remember that ‘meaning is holistic because understanding is’ (p. 97) (iii) suspicion of semantic nominalism (interpreting language in terms of a name/bearer relation; ignoring Frege’s insight into the priority of judgments and claims made by whole sentential episodes). As Brandom presents it, use of a semantic metavocabulary does not entail these errors, but it is ‘guilty by association’.
I said above that the BAN is specific to the project of giving the perspicuous representation that we want, but can be relaxed thereafter. Similarly we might expect that reference, representation, facts and truths could be purged of their misleading or obscuring features, and happily reintroduced once the theorizing is over. The SBAN would be an austerity which is introduced for a specific purpose, but would not imply any kind of general ban on the vocabulary in question. This could be nothing but a gain for pragmatism. It would free it from being the target of jibes such as Frank Jackson’s notorious complaint, that he has been at conferences in which people attacking representation nevertheless ‘have in their pockets pieces of paper with writing on them that tell them where the conference dinner is and when the taxis leave for the airport’. We want to be able to say, with the folk, that the paper refers to the restaurant, and tells the reader where it is, or represents truly the timetable of the taxis.
The remaining question, then, is how to give a sufficiently perspicuous representation of our doings with language that both respects the SBAN and yet rehabilitates whatever good use of notions like representation, fact, and the rest, that emerge from the story. One traditional route would be to try to ‘reduce’ the semantic notions to something less suspicious. But another might be to show the emergence of these notions in a way parallel to that in which the expressivist shows the emergence of notions like goodness or obligations, which is not by reducing them to anything natural, but to identify their genealogy in social practices. In what follows, drawing on work by Jonathan Bennett and Donald Davidson, I present one possible route to achieving this. I do not want to compare its virtues with that of apparently different approaches, such as those of Huw Price and Bob Brandom. For my purpose the account can be regarded as illustrative, rather than definitive. I would be happier to contemplate a convergence of rather different, but individually illuminating stories, rather than trying to maintain a monopoly of the field. The one desideratum which, I think, the following sketch respects and other stories perhaps do not, is that it starts nearer the ground. We do not help ourselves to society, or to interpersonal norms, or to anything beyond the unfolding lives of progressively more interesting creatures.
Bennett’s account in Linguistic Behaviour gives an empirically grounded ecological account whereby an organism’s registrations of aspects of its environment, and the goals it sets about achieving, are identified together. In his view ‘‘the fundamental way of learning how an animal is epistemically related to its environment is by observing how environmental changes correlate with changes in the animal’s pursuit of its goals”. (Linguistic Behaviour, p. 49) As he puts it ‘we can know that the frog sees the fly only because we know that it registers that there is a fly on the lily-pad, which in turn rests on our knowing that the frog registers that it is swimming/eating [i.e. in a state in which if it is going to eat, it has to swim]’. (p. 49)
Thus, we observe a frog. Sometimes it sets off swimming. Sometimes it hops one way or another, sometimes it climbs a tree, and so on? Why? It has to eat, and lo and behold, on one occasion there was a fly across the pond, and on others flies in the direction in which it hopped, or up the tree it climbed. So we judge that it is sensitive to the presence or absence of flies, and that one of its goals is survival by eating them.
Bennett then goes up the evolutionary ladder to add complexity: organisms that are flexible in their pursuit of goals. There may be educable, able to be taught new strategies, and inquisitive, so that one of their goals is to improve at registering just those aspects of the environment that enable them to achieve other goals with greater efficiency. Eventually he argues we have a perfect right to interpret complex patterns of behavior in terms of episodes of the animal thinking such-and-such and intending such-and-such. We can also watch the animal balancing different goals, or inferring one thing from another. These are just more complex, but quite intelligible, developments of primitive registration on the one hand and goals on the other.