Archives For normative functionalism

In our first special issue, we address divergent views concerning the implication, scope, and cogency of the Pittsburgh School’s (i.e., Sellars, Brandom, and McDowell) application of ‘normative functionalism’.

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I. An Introduction to the Pittsburgh School and Normative Functionalism

II. Normative Functionalism and Representation

III. Normative Functionalism and Agency

IV. Normative Functionalism and Reference

V. Normative Functionalism and Rhetoric

Author Information: Dave Beisecker, University of Nevada, Las Vegas,

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Beisecker, Dave. 2012. “Normative Functionalism and its Pragmatist Roots.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 109-116.

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In what follows, I shall characterize normative functionalism and contrast it with its causal counterpart. After tracing both stripes of functionalism to the work of the classical American pragmatists, I then argue that they are not exclusive alternatives. Instead, both might be required for an appropriately illuminating account of human rational activity.

Section 1

When we attempt to unpack some notion or phenomenon functionally, we try to characterize it, not in terms of its intrinsic features, but rather in terms of its upstream “inputs” and its downstream “outputs.” However, there are different ways in which we may choose to characterize or specify such inputs and outputs, which thus give rise to different flavors of functional analysis. Thus when we subject some phenomena to a normative functionalist analysis, we conceive of the relevant inputs and outputs in broadly normative terms. That is, we attempt to understand the phenomenon in question in terms of how it is influenced by, and how it in turn influences patterns of proprieties, obligations, and permissions (or commitments and entitlements, to deploy Robert Brandom’s (1994) preferred idiom). So Wilfrid Sellars, one of the pioneers of normative functionalism, urged us to think of the meanings of words or concepts in terms of their role in a richly interconnected network of material inferential proprieties (Sellars 1953, 1956). To give the meaning of a word is (on the upstream side) to specify when one is obliged or permitted to infer sentences deploying that word, and also (on the downstream side) to make explicit what one is in turn obliged or permitted to infer from such sentences. Those who can properly be said to understand a concept are those who have, perhaps implicitly, mastered these inferential proprieties. More recently, Rebecca Kukla and Mark Lance (2009) have similarly encouraged us to botanize various kinds of speech acts according to the interpersonal proprieties that govern when speakers may deploy them, as well as the licenses and obligations they confer upon their audiences. Kukla and Lance ambitiously argue that by doing so we can make substantial headway understanding how mind meets world in perception and action.

Section 2

Thus those who advertise the virtues of normative functionalism will typically urge us to view their chosen phenomena (usually something like thought, rationality, or meaning) in a social setting. The thought is that such phenomena only become intelligible in an intersubjective context. Subjects to whom certain philosophically interesting concepts are appropriately applied must be understood in a context of many such subjects interacting with one another to produce a pattern of changing permissions and obligations. Normative functionalists are thus likely to be unabashed social externalists. And here we have one chief contrast in philosophical temperament between normative functionalists and their cousins who subscribe to more traditional, and possibly more familiar, causal functionalisms. Causal functionalists like to think of the relevant inputs as causal influences upon the states of a system exhibiting some target phenomenon, and the outputs as the various causal effects that stem from such a system being in those states. Famously, Hilary Putnam (1975) suggested that mental activity was amenable to such causal-functional analysis, in which individual mental state-types could profitably be identified as states of a system characterized in terms of intrasubjective causal inputs and outputs. Causal functionalists like Putnam typically construe the relevant systems of interest as a sort of stimulus-response machine: individual organisms receiving inputs from their environments and then making responses to those inputs, perhaps through the mediation of some internal “cognitive processing.” Causal functionalists are much more likely than their normative counterparts to be methodological individualists. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Chauncey Maher, Dickinson College

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Maher, Chauncey. 2012. “Normative Functionalism about Intentional Action.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 100-108.

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1. Introduction

In any given day, I do many things. I perspire, digest and age. When I walk, I place one foot ahead of the other, my arms swinging gently at my sides; if someone bumps into me, I stumble. Perspiring, digesting, aging, placing my feet, swaying my arms and stumbling are all things I do, in some sense. Yet I also check my email, teach students and go to the grocery store. Those sorts of doings or behaviors seem distinctive; they are things I do intentionally.

What exactly is an intentional action? How does it differ from other things we do?

In this essay, I motivate and sketch an answer to those questions. On this view, an intentional action is a behavior that essentially alters what the actor is rationally accountable for, what she is rationally permitted or obliged to do, think, or feel. On this view, acting intentionally essentially involves a normative expectation that one has reasons for what one does. I call this view Normative Functionalism.

I begin in §2 by presenting a different, somewhat intuitive and popular view of intentional action, the so-called Causal Theory of Action. While that view does seem plausible, I allege that it doesn’t seem to accommodate the apparent fact that actors are accountable for their intentional actions. That motivates Normative Functionalism, which I sketch in §3. I conclude
in §4 by offering an interim assessment of the discussion.

2. The Causal Theory of Action

2.1. The Big Idea

In one of his many memorable remarks, Wittgenstein asks, “What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raised my arm?”[1] In reply, it’s very tempting to say something like this: ‘my desire to lift it!’ That expresses a fairly common way to think about intentional actions. When I intentionally raise my right arm, my body seems to go through the same motions that it would go through if someone else were to raise it for me; the only difference is how the motion is caused. So, it can seem that the main difference between the two cases is that intentional actions are behaviors that are caused in a certain way. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Joseph Margolis, Temple University,, Joseph Margolis: Wikipedia Entry

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

Margolis, Joseph. 2012. “A Response to a Question Regarding ‘Normative Functionalism’.”Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 98-99.

Editor’s Note: Professor Margolis provided an updated version of his piece on 8 January 2013 (seen here). The original post and pdf, uploaded on 20 December 2012, have been replaced. The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

I do have some definite views about normativity, but I confess to not being at all sure about the intended meaning of the expression “normative functionalism.” I see some possible ways of construing the expression. But I’ll just speak about normativity and perhaps it will have some bearing on the other!

In one of his posthumous papers, titled “Logic” (1897), which seems to have influenced Robert Brandom some, Gottlob Frege tenders the following suggestion: “Like ethics, logic can also be called a normative science.” [1] (In context, it’s clear that he also means to include the “science” of aesthetics.) I’m struck by the fact that Charles Peirce says something very similar, though I don’t know whether Peirce had ever seen a version of this particular remark by Frege: it’s not impossible. In any case, my own thought is that, although what Frege says (and what Peirce similarly says, in speaking about the normative sciences: logic, ethics, and aesthetics), is true enough, it needs also to be said that the normative cannot be construed uniformly across such a range of conceptual “spaces.” Indeed, both authors give us reason, by what they add, to signal that they are aware of important differences among the “sciences” being compared. Continue Reading…

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: Willem A. deVries, University of New Hampshire,

Normative Functionalism and the Pittsburgh School: Table of Contents

deVries, Willem A. 2012. “Sellars, Realism and Kanitan Thinking.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (1): 57-67.

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This essay is a response to Patrick Reider’s essay “Sellars on Perception, Science and Realism: A Critical Response.” Reider is correct that Sellars’s realism is in tension with his generally Kantian approach to issues of knowledge and mind, but I do not think Reider’s analysis correctly locates the sources of that tension or how Sellars himself hoped to be able to resolve it. Reider’s own account of idealism and the reasons supporting it are rooted in the epistemological tradition that informed the British empiricists, rather than in the metaphysical reasons that ruled within the German tradition from Leibniz through Hegel that has much more in common with Sellars’s position. Thus, Reider takes Sellars’s notion of picturing to be just another version of the representationalism that has dominated the Anglo-American tradition since Locke, whereas, in my view, because picturing is a non-semantical relation, it is an important ingredient in naturalizing the coherentist theories of the idealists.

Section I

Reider starts off, appropriately, with a discussion of analogy and science in Sellars’s thought. The target here is correct, but the discussion goes awry in some important ways. This is most directly seen in Reider’s speaking as if Sellars wants to exploit something like a Thomistic “analogy of proportion,” when, in fact, Sellars is claiming that the kinds of analogies he’s exploiting, unlike the Thomistic version, offers us “new determinate concepts” [my emphasis], rather than an allusion to something of some general nature whose specific reality remains beyond our ken.

Granted, there is something like a Thomistic analogy of proportion in play when, in the midst of his analysis of perception, Sellars tells us that “sheer phenomenology or conceptual analysis takes us part of the way” in understanding sensory episodes, namely, “to the point of assuring us that

Something, somehow a cube of pink in physical space is present in the perception other than as merely believed in (SSOP §26: 89).”

This result yields, like a Thomistic analogy of proportion, a highly indeterminate concept of what is present to us in the perception: something that is somehow a colored, shaped object in physical space. However, for our purposes the main point is that scientific theorizing goes far beyond this; eventually, it will develop a determinate conception of what is present in the perception and how it can manage to be colored and shaped, that is, what properties it has that are counterparts to the properties of the physical objects that normally cause such sensory states. This will be a family of determinate concepts of sensa.

There are two significantly different forms in which Sellars thinks analogies can lead to new determinate concepts. One is a matter of analogical relations between sets or families of concepts. Scientists use such analogies to generate new conceptual schemes that might prove explanatorily useful and be subject to empirical test. So, for instance, around the turn of the 20th century, after the discovery of the electron, J. J. Thomson proposed the “plum pudding” model to explain the structure of the atom, which was fairly quickly replaced by the Rutherford “planetary” model, which was then quantized by Bohr. Analogies to plum puddings and solar systems enabled scientists to think about the objects they were investigating and the principles that might explain their behavior by using concepts of domains with which we were already familiar. This facilitated the development of new tests that drove the scientists to new models. Sellars has this kind of analogy in mind when he argues, as he did in so many places, that our mentalistic concepts are formed by means of such an analogy, and in fact, by two different analogies. One likens our intentional states to episodes of ‘inner speech’, the other likens our sensory states to ‘inner replicas.’

The second significant form of analogy that Sellars considers is based on an isomorphism between two domains of objects and their relations (as opposed to concepts and their relations). When the objects and their relations in one domain bear a useful isomorphism to those in some other, nominally different domain, Sellars often speaks of “counterpart properties and relations.” We can find at least two or three different places where Sellars claims that such an isomorphism plays an important role. One is in the analysis of the sensory domain, where our sensory states exhibit counterpart properties to those exhibited by the manifest image sensory objects they are typically caused by, and are arranged in a scheme that involves counterparts of spatial and temporal relations (SM I ¶74). The other is in Sellars’s difficult notion of picturing. Some tokens of a linguistic type (what Sellars calls a “natural linguistic object”) picture some objects in nature in virtue of participating in a complex system of such natural linguistic objects that, in virtue of an unimaginably complex projection relation, is isomorphic (in certain respects) to the worldly objects thus pictured. 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…