Naturalism and Causal Explanation
Semantic properties are not commonly held to be part of the basic ontological furniture of the world. Consequently, we confront a problem: how to 'naturalize' semantics so as to reveal these properties in their true ontological colors? Dominant naturalistic theories address semantic properties as properties of some other (more primitive, less problematic) kind. The reductionistic flavor is unmistakable. The following quote from Fodor's Psychosemantics is probably the contemporary locus classicus of this trend. Fodor is commendably unapologetic: "I suppose that sooner or later the physicists will complete the catalogue they've been compiling of the ultimate and irreducible properties of things. When they do, the likes of spin, charm, and charge will perhaps appear upon their list. But aboutness surely won't; intentionality simply doesn't go that deep. It's hard to see, in the face of this consideration, how one can be a Realist about intentionality without also being, to some extent or other, a Reductionist. If the semantic and the intentional are real properties of things, it must be in virtue of their identity with (or maybe of their supervenience on?) properties that are themselves neither intentional nor semantic. If aboutness is real, it must be really something else." (Fodor 1987, 97) Notice the shape of this explanatory project. Intentional properties will count as real in virtue of their identity with, or supervenience on, some set of lower-level physical properties. Fodor thus assumes, in effect (as do many others engaged in naturalization projects for semantics), that the program of naturalization demands a higher-to-lower, top-to-bottom, kind of explanatory strategy. This paper addresses precisely that assumption, namely, that the non-semantic properties on which semantic properties depend, belong to what are intuitively lower levels of description than the intentional level itself. It also questions the higher-to-lower explanatory scheme associated with that assumption. My discussion of this topic draws on Robert Brandom's recent work (Brandom 1994) and can be considered an analysis of Brandom's stance and its implications. The discussion should help to explain the general lack of progress in the project of naturalizing content. It should also help show why attempts to eliminate the normative vocabulary employed in specifying the practices that guide the use of a language are unlikely to succeed. I shall start by displaying the general order of explanation that characterizes typical naturalization projects, showing that even when a full reduction to physics is avoided, some important assumptions inherited from the explanatory model of physics remain. These include the demand for an array of causal explanations couched in terms of ultimate properties of the world, and the idea that such non-semantic properties should be constitutive (in a narrow or individualistic sense to be explained below) of whatever semantic properties are in question. Extending Brandom's idea that the normativity of content is not reducible to physics, I shall argue that even such residual demands are inappropriate. More positively, I suggest that, despite the deep irreducibility of the normative dimension of content, we need not consider that dimension either primitive or inexplicable. Instead, such normative aspects can be unpacked by invoking a different, lower-to-higher, explanatory scheme in which the explanans includes higher level features such as skilled know-how and social frames of action.