7. This I, or We or It, the Thing, Which Speaks (Language as Interaction as Computation)


The Pragmatic Interface

To ask how our automata can transit from their base structure-encoding syntactic abilities to semantic structuring abilities is fundamentally to ask how syntax can be bridged to semantics. Building this bridge is not straightforward, in so far as no amount of algorithmic base syntactic abilities can generate semantic abilities. Yet to claim, as John Searle does, that syntax by itself is not sufficient for semantics is a recipe for the inflation of what meaning is, along with a myopic interpretation what syntax is and what syntactic expressions do. This is of course a claim encapsulated in the Chinese room thought experiment, an argument that simultaneously presupposes a potentially mystifying account of meaning, a peculiarly anaemic interpretation of syntax, and an outmoded understanding of the relationship between syntax and semantics.

Syntax, under the right conditions, is indeed sufficient for semantics, and meaning can be conferred upon syntactic expression if such conditions are satisfied. These conditions are what the inferentialist theory of meaning, as a species of social-pragmatics or the use-theory of meaning, attempts to capture. It argues that meaning is ultimately, at its most basic level, the justified use of mere expressions in social discursive linguistic practices; and that what counts as the justification of an expression is what counts as its meaning. While syntax by itself does not yield semantics, it does so when coupled with interaction. In this sense, pragmatics—at least in the sense defined by Brandom’s inferentialist pragmatism—can be understood as a bridge between syntax and semantics. Broadly speaking, semantics (content) is concerned with what is said, while pragmatism (use) is concerned with what one is doing in saying it (i.e. discursive practices-or-abilities that count as deploying a vocabulary, conferring or applying meaning). More precisely, semantics asks what it is that one believes (or knows, claims) when one believes that p (a content), whereas pragmatism asks what it is that one must know how to do in order to count as producing a performance that expresses that content…