Skip to main content
Log in

Realism, inferential semantics, and the truth norm

  • S.I. : Inferentialism
  • Published:
Synthese Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Characteristic of neo-pragmatism is a commitment to deflationism about semantic properties, and inferentialism about conceptual content. It is usually thought that deflationism undermines the distinction between realistic discourses and others, and that the neo-pragmatists, unlike the classical pragmatists, cannot recognize that truth is a norm of belief and inquiry. I argue, however, that (1) the distinction between realistic discourses and others can be maintained even in the face of a commitment to deflationism, and (2) that deflationists can recognize that truth is a norm of belief and inquiry. If deflationism is true, realistic discourses, it turns out, are those that are inferentially integrated with a large body of other commitments, whereas those that call for an anti-realist treatment are inferentially isolated. Now, Grimm has persuasively argued that inquiry aims at achieving understanding, and that to understand something is, roughly, to grasp a large body of inferential connections in which it features. So, if he is right, realistic discourses are those in which the aim of inquiry can be achieved. This fact, together with an inferential theory of conceptual content, will, I argue, allow neo-pragmatists to recognize truth as a norm of belief and inquiry, despite their commitment to deflationism.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. All deflationists will accept that the truth predicate has a disquotational role, like the one mentioned here, but there is disagreement about precisely how it is to be characterized.

  2. Inferentialists are typically explicit about the fact that actions and non-conceptual states of affairs are bound up in the same normative web as conceptual contents. See Brandom (2007): pp. 657–658. See also Sellars on ‘language-entry transitions’ and ‘language-departure transitions’, at, e.g., Sellars (1954): §§ 23–24).

  3. Brandom (2000): pp. 10–11, emphasis in the original.

  4. James (1959): p. 133. I have omitted James’ italics. Note, however, that James counted rather more among the range of experiences that can help verify a claim than many other verificationists. Misak is very good on this point. See Misak (2013), especially chapter 4, §§ 4–5.

  5. See Misak (2013): p. 37. See  Peirce (1877): p. 10 for an example from his work that supports this interpretation.

  6. See in particular Peirce (1877): p. 18.

  7. Peirce is quite clear that it is the very long run that he has in mind. He says: ‘Our perversity and that of others may indefinitely postpone the settlement of opinion; it might even conceivably cause an arbitrary proposition to be universally accepted as long as the human race should last. Yet even that would not change the nature of the belief, which alone could be the result of investigation carried sufficiently far; and if, after the extinction of our race, another should arise with faculties and disposition for investigation, that true opinion must be the one which they ultimately come to’ (Peirce 1878 : p. 39)

  8. This is Lynch’s chief objection to deflationism. It comes up in many places in his work, but for a good sample see Lynch (2004, 2015), and especially Lynch (2009): 111ff. Misak makes a similar point in her (Misak 2015).

  9. Lynch (2015): p. 249. He goes on to consider (and reject) deflationary attempts to explain why truth might be a norm of belief and an aim of inquiry.

  10. Many of the essays in Price et al. (2013) detail its promise. Its role in allowing us to side-step difficult ontological problems (discussed in this paragraph) is developed in detail in Price’s contribution to that book.

  11. There are, of course, many different views that go by the name ‘naturalism’. For the purposes of this example, practically any of them will do (see Baker 2013: xvi, for a fairly typical example). A notable exception is Price’s ‘subject naturalism’.

  12. Thus chemical discourse, for example, is what one finds in chemistry journals, which concerns the chemical properties of matter, and which permits one to infer, for example, facts about the bonding properties of elements from facts about their valence electrons.

  13. Although, admittedly, it is one dressed in linguistic guise.

  14. Early pragmatists were clear about their anti-metaphysical objectives (Peirce 1905 contains a nice discussion of Peirce’s attitude towards metaphysics). Putnam’s internal realism is a sophisticated successor to Peirce’s work (see, for example, Putnam 1983), as is Price’s way of dealing with ‘placement problems’ (see his contribution to Price et al. 2013).

  15. They cannot, that is, be local anti-representationalists. They can be global anti-representationalists. (Although whether inferentialism itself is a kind of global anti-representationalism is a matter of dispute among inferentialists. See Price and Brandom’s contributions to Price et al. 2013)

  16. Indeed, this was one of the main points of Boghossian (1990).

  17. I have used a disquotational version of deflationism to illustrate this point, but the particular example is inessential to the argument. For example, the prosentential theory of truth would work as well (For the original formulation see Grover et al. 1975, for a more recent development see Brandom 2002).

  18. Rorty (2004): p. 133. It should be noted that Rorty’s appropriation of Fine’s ‘natural ontological attitude’ may not be an entirely happy one. See Rorty’s discussion of Fine’s invocation of a referential understanding of truth on p. 138. See also Fine’s original paper (Fine 1984).

  19. This is one of the main points of Kukla and Winsberg (2015). Kukla and Winsberg argue that many who take themselves to be deflationists are not, because a number of the views that go by this name are strong enough to serve explanatory purposes.

  20. Strictly speaking, what I am interested in here is talk about organic chemistry, but this and similar qualifications will be omitted below for the sake of perspicuity.

  21. If, given P, it is probably the case that Q, and given Q it is probably the case that R, it does not follow that, given P, it is probably the case that R.

  22. Oliver Sachs’ books provide many examples of this.

  23. I will note, however, that, due to mereological concerns, some metaphysicians are inclined to deny that ordinary objects exist. My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for bringing this issue to my attention.

  24. Although, as Quine observed (see his Quine 1951), the relations between nodes may be many-one rather than one-one. It is not Bernoulli’s principle on its own that allows us to infer that the plane will not crash, it is Bernoulli’s principle together with many other premises.

  25. See Moore (2000) (originally published in 1903), chapter 2.

  26. There is some similarity between my proposal and Wright’s suggestion that having a narrow cosmological role is a mark of one kind of anti-realism. (See Wright 1992.) In some ways my proposal is more liberal than Wright’s: non-explanatory inferential connections help inferentially integrate discourses. In other ways it is simply different. Wright is concerned with mind-independence in a way that I am not. If idealism was true no discourse would count as realistic on Wright’s standard. But, whether or not idealism is true, both of the kinds of anti-realism discussed above remain live options, and so we do better to not run together questions about idealism with questions about anti-realism.

  27. Grimm (2008). See also Grimm (2010) , which builds on this idea, and emphasizes the practical aspect of inquiry—that we seek an explanation that we can use.

  28. Note, however, that Elgin also makes it a point to identify differences between their views (see also Kvanvig 2003).

  29. Those who subscribe to an atomistic approach to semantics are likely to see achieving understanding as an epistemic goal that is independent of mastering a language. Inferentialists see the matter differently. They take the meaning of a proposition to be a matter of the inferential connections between that proposition and others, as well as connections to relevant evidential states, and patterns of practical reasoning. Understanding, say, chemistry, and understanding the propositions of chemical discourse, on this picture, come to the same thing.

  30. And sometimes less than this. Consider, for example, fictional discourse.

  31. There is a nice issue that is worth mentioning here. Grimm says that it is understanding why p, not merely understanding p, that is the aim of inquiry. I suspect, however, that this distinction is merely one of convenience, and that there isn’t any real difference between understanding and understanding-why. The motivation for thinking that they are different is that they appear to have different objects: fields of study, in one case, why some particular fact obtains, in the other. But consider what is involved in understanding a field of study, like, for example, chemistry. Understanding chemistry amounts to understanding why oxygen will bond with hydrogen, why it won’t bond with argon, why uranium-235 is fissionable, and so on, for a very long list of facts. We speak of understanding chemistry, rather than understanding why each of these facts obtains, because the list of facts is too long, and perhaps open-ended (we may discover additional chemical facts that will need to be explained). But even in the case of understanding a field of study, it is understanding-why that is at issue.

  32. Consider the limiting case: a discourse with only two nodes, which are inferentially connected with each other. Grasping this inferential connection does not allow one to understand the subject matter of the discourse. Rather, this discourse is not such as to permit one to develop an understanding of its subject matter. If this claim is not intuitive, consider the following. Imagine reading an outline of a novel, and then reading the novel itself. In the outline the characters’ motivations are under-developed, there are gaps in the plot, and so on. You might grasp all of the inferential connections that the outline makes available to its readers, and yet complain that you do not really understand what is going on. Whereas if you read the completed novel, which provides details about the characters’ psychology, in which the plot runs smoothly, and so on, you will have a much better grasp of the story that is being told.

  33. Might discourse about qualia (as one reviewer suggests) provide us with an example of a discourse that we want to treat realistically, but which currently displays relatively little inferential integration? Perhaps. But our desire to be realists about qualia is, in part, based on our expectation that qualia-discourse will, in the long run, serve explanatory purposes that rival theories (for example, direct realism) will be unable to match. And if, after all of the evidence is in and all of the arguments have been examined, qualia-discourse is still inferentially isolated, it would make good sense to say that our earlier inclination, to treat it realistically, was misguided.

  34. Grimm argues that it is. He says that most philosophers of science who have considered the matter agree with him, whereas epistemologists are mostly arrayed on the other side (see Grimm 2006: p. 515).

  35. Although he doesn’t explicitly mention it, it is possible to read Foley as taking a stand on this question. His view is that one knows that P when one has a comprehensive-enough set of important true beliefs, of which P is a member, and no defeating conditions are satisfied. Depending on which, and how many, beliefs count as important, this might amount to saying that one has knowledge only if one has achieved a relevant kind of understanding. See Foley (2013).

  36. This is not the place for an extended discussion of semantic holism, but suffice it to say that inferentialists must take understanding of language, like understanding of anything else, to be a matter of degree.

  37. Or, at least, it requires being committed to the proposition that one knows. For present purposes the distinction between belief and commitment will not matter, but for information about the distinction see Tebben (2016).

  38. Dewey went further in this direction than his predecessors, although he did not develop the idea in the depth or with the rigor that Brandom and Sellars did. See Dewey (1958); telling passages can be found, for example, on pp. 175 and 188.

  39. Rorty (1979) is, in large measure, an argument against this distinction. Price’s opposition to the distinction comes up in many places. I think that it is one of the central points of Price (2004) (although he does not frame his paper in these terms). It is only ‘object naturalism’ (as he calls it) and not the more restrained ‘subject naturalism’ (which he advocates) that supports a realism/anti-realism distinction. It is true that in his most recent work Price accepts that there are differences between discourses, at least in that some kinds of claims display environmental covariance in a way that others do not. See his discussion of ‘e-representations’ and ‘i-representations’ in Price et al. (2013) . Notably, however, he still takes it that discourses of all kinds are legitimately in the descriptive business, even those which display relatively little environmental covariance. On this point see especially chapter 3. He says that the idea that science is ‘primary’ in that ‘the facts of science are the real facts, and the rest, at best, some sort of quasi-fact’ ends up mistaking ‘a kind of merely perspectival primacy for the view that science alone is really “in the referring business”. It misses the point that every assertoric vocabulary is equally in this business by its own lights’ (Price et al. 2013: 46).

  40. The ellipsis in the quotation covers a line break, in addition to some text. Note that Price considers his own view to be a version of global expressivism.

  41. This paper was inspired by a conversation that I had with Huw Price and some of his students while I was a visiting scholar at the University of Sydney. I don’t know if they would agree with any of it, but I would like to thank Huw and his students for their inspiration, as well as the University for its hospitality. My work in Sydney was supported by a Sachs fellowship, and so I would also like to thank the Sachs family for their generous support. Finally, I would like to thank Jon Hricko, Nick Goldberg, and a pair of anonymous reviewers for providing comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


  • Ayer, A. J. (1950). Language, truth and logic. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.

    Google Scholar 

  • Baker, L. R. (2013). Naturalism and the first-person perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Boghossian, P. (1990). The status of content. The Philosophical Review, 99, 157–184.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brandom, R. (2000). Articulating reasons: An introduction to inferentialism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brandom, R. (2002). Expressive vs. explanatory deflationism about truth. In R. Schantz (Ed.), What is truth? (pp. 103–119). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brandom, R. (2007). Inferentialism and some of its challenges. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 76, 651–676.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dewey, J. (1958). Experience and nature. New York: Dover Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Elgin, C. (2009). Is understanding factive? In A. Haddock, A. Miller, & D. Pritchard (Eds.), Epistemic value (pp. 322–330). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fine, A. (1984). The natural ontological attitude. In J. Leplin (Ed.), Scientific Realism (pp. 103–133). Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foley, R. (2013). When is true belief knowledge?. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grimm, S. R. (2001). Ernest Sosa, understanding and knowledge. Philosophical Studies, 106, 171–191.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Grimm, S. R. (2006). Is understanding a species of knowledge? British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 57, 515–535.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Grimm, S. R. (2008). Explanatory inquiry and the need for explanation. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 59, 481–497.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Grimm, S. R. (2010). The goal of explanation. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 41, 337–344.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Grover, D. L., Camp, J. L., & Belnap, N. D. (1975). A prosentential theory of truth. Philosophical Studies, 27, 73–125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • James, W. (1959). Pragmatism, and four essays on the nature of truth. New York: Meridian Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kukla, R., & Winsberg, E. (2015). Deflationism, pragmatism, and metaphysics. In S. Gross, N. Tebben, & M. Williams (Eds.), Meaning without representation: Essays on truth, expression, normativity, and naturalism (pp. 25–46). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Kvanvig, J. (2003). The value of knowledge and the pursuit of understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Lynch, M. P. (2004). Minimalism and the value of truth. Philosophical Quarterly, 54, 497–517.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lynch, M. P. (2009). Truth as one and as many. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Lynch, M. P. (2015). Pragmatism and the price of truth. In S. Gross, N. Tebben, & M. Williams (Eds.), Meaning without representation: Essays on truth, expression, normativity, and naturalism (pp. 245–261). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Mackie, J. L. (1977). Ethics: Inventing right and wrong. London: Penguin Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Misak, C. (2013). The American pragmatists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Misak, C. (2015). Pragmatism and the function of truth. In S. Gross, N. Tebben, & M. Williams (Eds.), Meaning without representation: Essays on truth, expression, normativity, and naturalism (pp. 262–278). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Moore, G. E. (2000). Principia ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Peirce, C. S. (1877). The fixation of belief. Popular science monthly, 12, 1–15. Rept. In J. Bucher (Ed.) 1955. The philosophical writings of Peirce (pp. 5–22). New York: Dover. References are to the reprinted version.

  • Peirce, C. S. (1878). How to make our ideas clear. Popular Science Monthly, 12, 286–302. Rept. in J. Bucher (Ed.) 1955. The philosophical writings of Peirce (pp. 23–41) New York: Dover. References are to the reprinted version.

  • Peirce, C. S. (1905). What pragmatism is. The Monist, 15, 161–181.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Price, H. (2004). Naturalism without representationalism. In M. de Caro & D. Macarthur (Eds.), Naturalism in question (pp. 71–88). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Price, H. (2010). One cheer for representionalism?. In R. Auxier (Ed.), The philosophy of Richard Rorty (Library of Living Philosophers Vol. XXXII, pp. 269–289) La Salle, IL: Open Court. Rept. in H. Price 2011. Naturalism without mirrors (pp. 304–322) Oxford: Oxford University Press. References are to the reprinted version.

  • Price, H., Blackburn, S., Brandom, R., Horwich, P., & Williams, M. (2013). Expressivism, pragmatism and representationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Putnam, H. (1983). Why there isn’t a ready-made world. In H. Putnam (Ed.), Realism and reason (pp. 205–228). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Quine, W. V. (1951). Two dogmas of empiricism. The Philosophical Review, 60, 20–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rorty, R. (1979). Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rorty, R. (2004). A pragmatist view of contemporary analytic philosophy. In W. Egginton and M. Sandbothe (Eds.) The pragmatic turn in philosophy: Contemporary engagements between analytic and continental thought (pp. 131–144) Albany: State University of New York Press. Rept. In R. Rorty Philosophy as cultural politics: Philosophical papers (Vol 4, pp. 133–146) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. References are to the reprinted version.

  • Sellars, W. (1954). Some reflections on language games. Philosophy of Science, 21, 204–228.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sellars, W. (1997). Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tebben, N. (2016). Belief isn’t voluntary, but commitment is. Synthese,. doi:10.1007/s11229-016-1258-y.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Williams, M. (2013). How pragmatists can be local expressivists. In H. Price, et al. (Eds.), Expressivism, pragmatism and representationalism (pp. 128–144). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Wright, C. (1992). Truth and objectivity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nicholas Tebben.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Tebben, N. Realism, inferential semantics, and the truth norm. Synthese 198 (Suppl 4), 955–973 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: