In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conceptual Role Semantics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Unilateral versus Bilateral CRS
  • Connections between CRS and Meta-Ethics

Philosophy Conceptual Role Semantics
Arvid Båve
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0293


This article treats of a family of theories variously known also as “inferentialism,” “inferential/functional/cognitive/causal/computational role semantics,” “functionalism,” and “use-theory of meaning.” However, it will throughout use only “CRS,” short for “Conceptual Role Semantics,” to be understood in a suitably wide sense. This kind of theory has been propounded and discussed in very different theoretical contexts, including the philosophy of mathematics, formal logic, the philosophies of mind and language, and cognitive science. In the philosophies of mind and language, it has been discussed in rather disparate kinds of literature, ranging from discussions about later Wittgenstein to causal theories of mental content. It is a theory of linguistic meaning and/or mental content (depending on which is taken as basic), and holds that what an expression means (or what makes a given concept the concept it is), is determined by the expression’s (concept’s) psychological or inferential role. This role can be identified either in wholly descriptive (e.g., causal) terms or partly in normative terms, and concerns the expression’s or concept’s behavior in inferences. Inferences, in turn, can be understood either in the usual, narrow sense or as involving also perception and action. Examples of a CRS account of the meaning of the word “and” may be that it is determined by the inferences from “A and B” to both “A” and “B” and from the latter back to “A and B” (what determines the meaning of “and” will be either the correctness of these rules [normative CRS] or the fact that they are actually followed [non-normative CRS]). The concept of redness could similarly be taken as determined by transitions from certain perceptions to beliefs involving the concept, and from such beliefs to other beliefs. CRS is the most common approach to meaning in cognitive science and linguistics (with the notable exception of formal semantics). The main alternative is the view that meanings or concepts should be understood in terms of reference, satisfaction, and truth, but ecumenical views are common. CRS can be traced as far back as to the Associationism of the British Empiricists and to Kant, but more relevantly, to verificationism, the later Wittgenstein, Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz, and Gerhard Gentzen (whose interests, however, were restricted to the logical constants). In post-Enlightenment, non-analytic philosophy, similar ideas have been expressed by Friedrich Hegel, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Martin Heidegger. This article, however, focuses exclusively on CRS in analytic philosophy from Ajdukiewicz and Gentzen and onward. The first example of a full attempt at a generalized CRS is typically thought to be found in the works of Wilfrid Sellars, published during the 1950s–1970s. Since then, new works defending some version of CRS, as well as discussions about them, have appeared regularly until the early 21st century. The most important defenders of CRS since Sellars include (in roughly chronological order) Gilbert Harman, Ned Block, Christopher Peacocke, Robert Brandom, and Paul Horwich, while its most influential critic is arguably Jerry Fodor.

General Overviews

There is no authoritative book-length overview of CRS, but there are some good shorter ones. Whiting 2015, Greenberg and Harman 2008, and Murzi and Steinberger 2017 are highly recommended, detailed overviews, while Block 1998 and lePore 1994 are brief and somewhat sketchy. Skorupski 1997 does not quite concern CRS, but can be seen to provide some useful historical background.

  • Block, Ned. “Conceptual Role Semantics.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Craig, 242–256. London: Routledge, 1998.

    This is a very brief introduction to CRS, which treats, in a somewhat sketchy manner, of the status of CRS, its motivation, and the main objections against it.

  • Greenberg, Mark, and Gilbert Harman. “Conceptual Role Semantics.” In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language. Edited by Ernest lePore and Barry Smith, 296–322. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199552238.001.0001

    This is a nice read, although not quite an impartial overview. It is cowritten by one of the pioneers, yet well up to date and duly points out the many common misconceptions about CRS. It mainly lays out the authors’ preferred version of CRS, but also surveys the most important objections, replies, and so on, up to the current state of the debate.

  • lePore, Ernest. “Conceptual Role Semantics.” In A Companion to the Philosophy of Mind. Edited by Samuel Guttenplan, 193–199. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

    A brief, critical introduction to CRS, mainly described in connection with functionalism in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science.

  • Murzi, Julien, and Florian Steinberger. “Inferentialism.” In A Companion to the Philosophy of Language. 2d ed. Vol. 1. Edited by Bob Hale, Crispin Wright, and Alexander Miller, 197–224. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2017.

    This overview covers several important topics surrounding CRS (which the authors take to subsume inferentialism). A useful, detailed overview of taxonomical matters is provided, and, more controversially, a distinction between semantics and metasemantics is presented, allowing further taxonomical distinctions between different versions of CRS. Special focus is devoted to “logical inferentialism” (inferentialism about the logical constants and more formal issues in proof theory), Brandom’s veriety of inferentialism, and some objections by Timothy Williamson.

  • Skorupski, John. “Meaning, Use, Verification.” In A Companion to the Philosophy of Language. Edited by Bob Hale and Crispin Wright, 29–59. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

    This is not quite an introduction to CRS, but it offers discussions about ideas about meaning that can be seen as precursors of CRS, particularly Wittgenstein’s later thought and verificationism.

  • Whiting, Daniel. “Conceptual Role Semantics.” In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2015.

    This is a wide-ranging, impartial introduction, which covers, with good proportions, the most important versions of CRS and the most important debates surrounding it.

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