Archives For John McDowell

Author Information: Michael P. Wolf, Washington and Jefferson College,

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Wolf, Michael P. 2012. “Rigid Designation and Natural Kind Terms, Pittsburgh Style.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 133-142.

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This paper addresses recent literature on rigid designation and natural kind terms that draws on the inferentialist approaches of Sellars and Brandom, among others. Much of the orthodox literature on rigidity may be seen as appealing, more or less explicitly, to a semantic form of “the given” in Sellars’s terms. However, the important insights of that literature may be reconstructed and articulated in terms more congenial to the Pittsburgh school of normative functionalism.

I. The issues

Reflection on Frege’s (1892/1980) account of sense led many analytic philosophers of language to view proper names and other apparently simple singular terms as covert clusters of descriptions. Thus, a proper name such as “Aristotle” had as its meaning some set of predicates and descriptions like “the author of Nicomachean Ethics, the teacher of Alexander the Great, the husband of Pythias…” The name (or other singular term) then refers to that object which satisfies all of the descriptions, or some suitable subset of them. Kripke (1980) criticizes this approach extensively, arguing that the meanings of proper names and natural kind terms could not be understood in such terms. While such descriptions might be associated with proper names and natural kind terms, those associations did not amount to synonymy. We might imagine other possible worlds — or discover in the actual world — that some or all of the descriptions in such a cluster were not true of the expression’s referent. We might also imagine such instances where something else better fit the descriptions. If Aristotle forged the credentials listed above, he does not cease to be Aristotle; if someone else did all of those things, he does not thereby become Aristotle. The proper name refers to that person and only that person, whether the associated descriptions are true of him or not.

The notion was initially introduced in modal terms by Kripke (1980, 48): “Let’s call something a rigid designator if in every possible world it designates the same object,” while non-rigid designators would not do so. Such a designator may fail to designate at all (i.e., in some possible worlds, Aristotle never exists), but it does not designate something else if that thing happens to have other properties. Nor does something else (say, Aristotle’s brother) turn out to be Aristotle if it meets more of the descriptions in the cluster. When we use the proper name “Aristotle,” its reference is fixed for us in the actual world, and that reference remains fixed no matter what we may discover about this world or stipulate about others. Putnam (1973, 1975b) contemporaneously [1] extended many of these ideas to natural kind terms, while others have extended them to include still more classes of expressions such as indexicals and pronouns. [2]

Why should any of this trouble a normative functionalist? Many defenders of rigid designation’s place in a theory of meaning have stated its nature in terms of the “object-involving” character of truth conditions for sentences in which they appear. That is, the object itself would figure in the truth conditions, rather than some means — functions, inference licenses, possible worlds, whatever the tools of the theory may be — for reidentifying and differentiating between potential referents. On a first pass, this would seem to involve an appeal to non-semantic items as elements of the semantic order; a more sophisticated reading would appear to involve appeal to a direct, unmediated word-world relation as an explainer in a theory of meaning. In Sellarsian dialects of Pittsburghese, this would amount to invoking the given in semantic form. Outside those circles, most analytic philosophers after Kripke would say that inferentialist accounts seem to preclude an appropriately direct involvement of objects in their semantic contents. Putnam and Sellars spoke directly to one another on this point, in fact. In 1974 at the APA Eastern meetings, Sellars presented his “Meaning as Functional Classification,” a touchstone of normative functionalism in recent theory of meaning, and comments were offered by none other than Hilary Putnam. Sellars’s views are discussed extensively elsewhere in this edition, but Putnam expressed significant reservations:

The normal-form description of the meaning of a word does include a description of the rules for the use of the word. … The “rule” component gives the full specification of individual competence, or even of collective social competence at a given time; it fails to completely capture what is ordinarily called the meaning of the word and in particular it fails to capture the extension. The battery of rules, whether you take that in an individual or a social sense, does not determine the extension of the word. … The determination of extension is a social matter, and also more than a social matter; it depends also on the contribution of the environment. (1974, 453-454).

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Author Information: Frank Scalambrino, University of Dallas, Texas,

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Scalambrino, Frank. 2012. “Tales of the mighty tautologists?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 83-97.

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There is supposed to be deep agreement among the work of Wilfrid Sellars, Robert Brandom, and John McDowell in regard to normativity. As a result, according to Robert Brandom (2008), and echoed by Chauncey Maher (2012), “normative functionalism” (NF) may refer to a position held by Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell, i.e., “The Pittsburgh School” of philosophy. The standard criticism of the various forms of this normative functionalist position points out the inconsistency in the commitment of normative functionalists to both metaphysical realism and psychological nominalism. Yet, the inconsistency between metaphysical realism and psychological nominalism may be difficult to see until the relation between normativity and perception is clarified. To this end, in this article I discuss the role of habit in perception. Normative functionalists aspire for a sort of pragmatism between the horns of psychologism and pan-logicism. However, once a discussion of habit in perception reveals a kind of relation between an agent and its environment that exceeds the inferential capacity of normativity, the normative functionalist position seems tautological. Put more specifically, the NF thesis may merely be claiming that the inferential sort of normativity which governs rational synthetic processing of experience is an inferential sort of normativity governing rational synthetic processing. The revelation of such a tautological grounding should be sufficient evidence for the Pittsburgh School to consider re-working its understanding of the functionality of normativity; for example, regarding claims such as: “In an important sense there is no such boundary [between the discursive and non-discursive], and so nothing outside the realm of the conceptual” (Brandom 2000, 357). This discussion should be, at least, valuable as a supplement to the standard criticism of NF or in regard to the Pittsburgh School’s avowed relation to G.W.F. Hegel.

“[A] tree or a rock can become subject to norms insofar as we consider it as engaging in social practices.” [1] — Robert Brandom

I. Introduction

The “Pittsburgh School” of philosophy refers to the work of Wilfrid Sellars, Robert Brandom, and John McDowell from the University of Pittsburgh. And, there is supposed to be “deep agreement” within the Pittsburgh School regarding normativity (cf. Brandom 2008, 357; cf. Maher 2012). “Normative Functionalism,” then, refers to the philosophical position indicated by the deep agreement among these various Pittsburgh School understandings of normativity. So, how may the position of normative functionalism (NF) be characterized?

Consider Brandom’s characterization from his Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas (2009),

The synthesis of a rational self or subject: what is responsible for the [normative] commitments … has a rational unity in that the commitments it comprises are treated as reasons for and against other commitments, as normatively obliging one to acknowledge some further commitments and prohibiting acknowledgement of others [Brandom’s emphases] (Brandom, 2009, 14).

It is as if the meaning of an experience for an agent depends on its relation to the norm-governed network, i.e., a space of reasons, in which it functions as an assertion. And, according to Brandom: “This is Kant’s normative inferential conception of awareness or experience” (Brandom 2009, 14). Further, in his book The Pittsburgh School of Philosophy (2012), Chauncey Maher explains, “the big idea is that the meaning of a term or a whole sentence is its norm-governed [emphasis added] role in rational conduct, broadly construed to include perception, thinking, speech, and deliberate action” (Maher 2012a, 5). Ultimately, in this article, I will argue that the domain of experience the Pittsburgh School considers norm-governed is too widely construed in regard to perception. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Tom Rockmore, Duquesne University,, Tom Rockmore: Wikipedia Entry

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Rockmore, Tom. 2012. “The Pittsburgh School, The Given and Knowledge”. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 29-38.

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The Pittsburgh School, aka the Pittsburgh Hegelians or as the Pittsburgh neo-Hegelians, is often associated with Sellars, McDowell and Brandom. The views of the Pittsburgh School arise on the heels of Sellars’ rejection of the given, but differ in important ways. The difficulty, if one turns away from the given, lies in justifying objective claims to know. I argue that neither Sellars, nor Brandom, nor McDowell successfully justifies claims to know. I further question their supposed Hegelianism. Hegel is a constructivist in that he follows Kant’s claim, which is central to the Copernican revolution, that we know only what we in some sense “construct.” Unlike Hegel, the Pittsburgh “Hegelians” are not constructivists in terms of the letter or even the spirit of their views.

The Pittsburgh School aka the Pittsburgh Hegelians or as the Pittsburgh neo-Hegelians, is often associated with Sellars, McDowell and Brandom, but oddly not with Rescher, who is arguably closer to idealism, hence, since Hegel is an idealist, closer to Hegel.[1] The Pittsburgh School is sometimes understood to feature normative functionalism. Normative functionalism is a distant variation on the Kantian theme of categories. At stake is the nature and role of concepts after Kant, as well as the problem of knowledge if, in isolating spontaneity from receptivity, one gives up empiricism to justify cognitive claims.

Functionalism, which goes back at least to Aristotle, is usually understood as the doctrine that a mental state depends on its function or role in a wider system. The term “normative functionalism,” which is employed in several fields, including at least sociology and philosophy, has no standard philosophical meaning. In the Pittsburgh School, normative functionalism belongs to the effort to work out an approach to knowledge after the so-called given.

At least initially, “functionalism” may be defined as the view that to say that a word has a certain meaning or that a thought has content is to say that the word or thought has a certain functional role in a system of some kind. Normative functionalism gains traction for the Pittsburgh School in the discussion through the supposed relation to the given. The idea of the given, which is now firmly identified with Sellars, was anticipated earlier by others, for instance C. I. Lewis, who, in Mind and the World Order, draws attention to a distinction between the given or immediate sense data about which one cannot be mistaken, the interpretation of the given, and the concept through which we interpret it.

I believe no one can say with certainty precisely how Sellars understands the given, though it is at plausible that he intends to counter Lewis and others committed to empiricism. Moore and Russell, the founders of analytic philosophy in England, were broadly empirical thinkers. Sellars’ attack on the given loosely belongs to the analytic attack on empiricism underway roughly since the later Wittgenstein. The analytic turn against empiricism featured in recent analytic philosophy was anticipated in Kant’s critique of Humean naturalism. For naturalism, he substitutes a transcendental approach to knowledge. In relying on the supposed parallelism between judgments and categories, he proposes a transcendental deduction of the latter. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Patrick J. Reider, University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg,

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Reider, Patrick J. 2012. “Normative Functionalism in the Pittsburgh School.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 16-28

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Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell (whom Maher aptly calls the “Pittsburgh School”) have tremendous influence on the current shape of the analytic tradition. Despite their differing views on philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, and epistemology, their shared application of ‘normative functionalism’ highlights important similarities in their approaches to the aforementioned disciplines. Normative functionalism interprets the ability to form judgments, possess concepts, rationally defend or be critical of judgments, and consequently act as an agent, as largely guided by one’s responsiveness to norms. In this article, I argue for two related claims. First, I argue that the Pittsburgh School’s normative functionalism has germinated from the seed of Sellars’ ‘psychological nominalism’ and cannot be separated from it. Second, no philosophical question or approach can be free of competing claims as to the manner in which human beings think, communicate, act, and know. As a result, normative functionalism (insofar as it is a natural extension of psychological nominalism) is relevant to many philosophical disciplines, because it opposes nearly all the traditional views concerning how the human intellect comes into being and functionally operates.

Section 1

Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell (whom Maher aptly calls the “Pittsburgh School”) have tremendous influence on the current shape of the analytic tradition.[1] Despite their differing views on philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, and epistemology, their shared application of ‘normative functionalism’ highlights important similarities in their approaches to the aforementioned disciplines.[2]

As of yet, there is no definite way to refer to ‘normative functionalism,’ nor can one claim that its use is well established. Nonetheless, normative functionalism indicates a philosophical approach that will continue to have important repercussion in contemporary thought for two distinct reasons. First, via the considerable influences of Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell, the approach (if not the term) of normative functionalism is embedded in the most important issues facing one of the historically most prominent trends of the 21st century. Second, the theory of normative functionalism appears to maintain its explanatory power within a wide range of philosophical disciplines. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Chauncey Maher, Dickinson College,

Maher, Chauncey. 2012. Reply to Reider. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (11): 16-23

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1. Introduction

In his review of my book The Pittsburgh School, Patrick Reider characterizes the philosophers of the Pittsburgh School — Sellars, McDowell, and Brandom — as aiming to inherit empiricism. As he puts it, they offer “modified versions of empiricism … to resolve various problems associated with knowledge.” [1]

While I agree that the Pittsburgh School can be seen as responding to empiricism, I think it is more helpful to see them as critics of foundationalism — or, in Sellars’s provocative words, as critics of “the entire framework of givenness.” [2] That is, they are critics not just of foundationalism in epistemology, but of foundationalist ideas in, for instance, philosophical thinking about meaning and action. In place of “static” conceptions of these things, they propose dynamic, diachronic conceptions of them.

In this short reply to Reider, I want to give a rough sketch of the Pittsburgh School’s opposition to foundationalism, starting from their critique of “the Given”. I will move over a lot of terrain very quickly in order to give a synoptic overview of the landscape. Continue Reading…