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Tushar Menon (University of Cambridge): ‘Inferential Scientific Realism’

6 March 2023, 2:00 pm3:30 pm

This will be a hybrid lecture: you can attend in person in our usual LAK 2.06 seminar room, or on Zoom:

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Meeting ID: 852 3006 9457
Passcode: 297258

Abstract: A key scientific realist commitment is that at least some scientific expressions correspond to unobservable entities or structures out there in the world. This is usually cashed out as the claim, roughly, that some terms denote unobservables, and some sentences containing those terms are (at least approximately) true. One problem with this understanding of scientific realism, as structural realists have argued, is that the semantic machinery of ‘denotation’ and ‘truth’ is ill-suited to the representational demands of modern mathematised physics. I argue that this symptomatic of the deeper semantic mistake of treating scientific theories in the Representationalist semantic tradition. On this view, we first understand the meanings of scientific terms in terms of denotation, then compose those terms to construct and adjudicate truth-apt sentences, and on that basis, assess the quality of particular scientific inferences. Or, to put it as a slogan: representation grounds meaning and inference.

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 inferences in which it is caught up. I demonstrate that one can adapt and generalise to theories of physics Brandom’s inferentialist machinery, in order to get a better handle on how expressions in such theories get their meaning, or in other words, how inference grounds meaning and representation. On this basis, I develop a view on which inferences implicit within specific practices within physics determine bespoke semantic machinery—analogues of ‘denotation’ and ‘truth’—which, under the right circumstances, can capture and justify the scientific realist impulse.

Tushar Menon is a philosopher of physics and a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge.


6 March 2023
2:00 pm – 3:30 pm
Event Category:


Bryan W. Roberts


LAK 2.06
Lakatos Building
London, WC2A 2AE United Kingdom
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