The Jowett Society (Friday - Week 3, HT23)

Philosophical Society

A key scientific realist commitment is that scientific expressions, in some sense, correspond to entities or structures out there in the world. This commitment often follows from trying to cash out the suggestion that our best scientific theories make claims that are (at least approximately) true. Here, truth is understood correspondence-theoretically, and correspondence is understood in terms of a relation of representation (usually reference/denotation) between scientific terms and entities or structures in the world. The way this works is that we first understand the meanings of scientific terms, then compose those terms to construct and adjudicate truth-apt claims, and on that basis, assess the quality of particular scientific inferences; on this `representationalist' view, representation grounds meanings and inference. 


One problem with standard scientific realism, as structural realists have argued, is that the semantic machinery of `truth' and `reference' is ill-suited to the representational demands of modern mathematised physics. The modern structural realist suggestion, then, is to seek more appropriate semantic machinery. But even the most sophisticated versions of structural realism operate within a representationalist approach. And that, I argue, is really where the trouble originates. 


So in this talk, following the Sellars-Brandom tradition, I argue that the semantic order of explanation should be reversed: a scientific expression gets its meaning via the scientific inferences in which it is caught up. I demonstrate that one can adapt and generalise to theories of physics Brandom’s expressivist-inferentialist machinery, in order to get a better handle on how expressions in such theories get their meaning; here inference grounds meaning and representation. The inferentialist analysis of scientific representation that I offer allows me to develop a view on which scientific inferences implicit within specific practices determine bespoke semantic machinery that, under some circumstances, captures and justifies the scientific realist impulse.

If you would like to join us for dinner after the talk, please email: Spaces are limited so do get in touch if you're keen.

Jowett Society Organising Committee: Imogen Rivers  | Jowett Society Website