Some Introductory Comments on Semantics, Meaning, and Related Philosophical Issues
What is Language? Some Views (which view one holds radically affects how one will approach Cognitive Science):
1. It is an "object"
a. It exists apart from individual people
"Abstract Object Theories"
Katz ["NY Platonism"]
Quine?, (early) Davidson, Montague, Pullum
b. It is defined by its appearance in people
Chomsky (a "natural object", not an artifact)
2. It is not an object at all, but is an ability that individual
"linguistic nominalism": the fundamental building
blocks of language are individual peoples beliefs,
intentions, ideas, desires, [and rationality]
Grice, J. Bennett, Locke? "commonsense"
3. Not only is language not an object, it is not an individual
ability at all. It is a byproduct, an epiphenomenon, a
side-effect, of Society, Culture, Social Forces
"ordinary language philosophy"
David Lewis distinguishes a language from language:
What is a language?
Something that assigns meanings to certain strings of types of sounds it could therefore be a mathematical function.
Meanings are something which, when combined with factual information about the world (about any conceivable world?) yield a truth value. > formal semantics
What is language?
A social phenomenon which is part of the natural history of certain creatures. A sphere of (human?) actin, wherein people make vocal sounds and wherein people respond by thought or actin to those sounds.
This is rational: S knows (for whatever reason) that making this sound in these circumstances will probably bring about certain actions or beliefs. S wants this; so S utters it.
Traditionally, Language is seen as a "system of signs"
The study of "signs" is called "Semiotics"
C. S. Peirce, C. Morris, R. Carnap, de Saussure
more modern versions in Eco
Peirce: "knowledge acquisition and thought are
never immediate, direct processes but are always
mediated through signs" "all thought is in signs"
representational theory of mind?
Peirce: "the type of thought process involving
inferences based on the interpretation of signs is
abductionto be distinguished from induction
Semiotics divides signs up into three different categories:
icons "get their meaning from likeness to that of
which they are an icon"
indices "get their meaning from causal connection
to that of which they are an index"
symbols "get their meaning by means of some
Semiotics also divided the study of signs up into three different realms:
Syntax: the properties of the signs (expressions of the
language) like well-formedness and any other
"purely formal" properties
Semantics: the relationship between signs (of the
language) and what they are "about" typically
"the world" or "the mind" or "a model"
Pragmatics: how signs are used. In language studies, this
concerns relations between expressions and their
uses in context e.g., (some) presuppositions,
implicature, "speaker meaning". It also concerns
the interpretation of the signs.
Thinking back to the various theories of "what is language", it seems clear that
Theories which propose the fundamental basis of language
to be society (etc) will take pragmatics to be the
fundamental notion of "meaning", and will say that semantics is merely some sort of "abstraction away from use"
Theories that propose the fundamental nature of language
to be an abstract object will think of semantics as a
relation between that abstract object and "the world" (or at least, to "something else").
And they will think of pragmatics (and any other social use
of language) as being a matter for some field of study
other than linguistics for instance, it will be a matter
of psychology or sociology.
This last is true not only of certain "formal semanticists" and of the "NY Platonists", but also of Chomsky who sees all these things (social use, etc., all those things he calls E-language) as being "artifacts" and belonging to an entirely different realm of inquiry. Not a natural science at all like linguistics is supposed to be.
A consequence of this is that Chomsky thinks of semantics (any study of how language relates to "something else", whether this something else be "the world" or "use in society", etc) as being completely divorced from the study of language.
Chomsky is willing to entertain a view of semantics which is totally "internal" and is part of "the language faculty" but he points out that this would just be to set up a relationship between [what he calls] the syntactic component and another mental realm that would have its own "language". And so it is just a matter of matching up one syntax with another. (and thats not what anyone else would call semantics)
Chomsky: "Computers, unlike the human language faculty, are artifacts and hence are the product of human intentions. The language faculty is a natural object and embedded within human biology, so the facts about its structure are no more grounded in human intentions than are facts about the structure of human biology."
Complaints about the Chomsky view include:
even if language is "internal", meaning cant be defined
that way. [the Putnam (etc) twin-Earth stuff]
(Chomsky reply: just shows you that meaning isnt
part of language)
Problems with "rule following" always been an
issue, but brought out forcefully by Kripke ("Kripkenstein") on Rule Following. "There is no
fact of the matter concerning what rules and representations are being used; so the use of the idea
of rules and competence in linguistics needs serious
(Chomsky reply: distinguish descriptive adequacy from explanatory adequacy. Cf. reply to Quine)
Grice ("linguistic nominalism") distinguished
natural meaning from non-natural meaning
(similar to the semiotic tradition)
meansn from meansnn
Smoke meansn fire
Those spots meann measles
meansnn mens room
meansnn to stop your car
Es schneit meansnn its snowing
Five basic questions about meaning:
1. What are meanings?
2. What is it for an expression to have a meaning?
3. What is it to know the meaning(s) of an expression? (More generally: what is it to understand a language?)
4. What is the relationship between the meaning of an
expression and what, if anything, the expression refers to?
5. What is the relationship between the meaning of a complex expression and the meanings of its constituents? (the "problem of compositionality")
The principle of [semantic] compositionality:
The meaning of a complex expression is a function of the meanings of its parts.
Opposed to "holism" or "emergentism" or "gestaltism" or "dynamic systems theory" and various other related doctrines which hold:
The meaning of a whole is greater than the sum of
the meanings of its parts.
Clearly this is going to depend on what one thinks meaning, whole, part, function, greater than, and sum amount to.
Other issues of importance to semanticists especially the more formal ones:
Ambiguity: (having more than one meaning)
Vagueness: (how to distinguish from ambiguity? How to
give a "logical" or "psychological" account of it?)
Anomaly: (what is the line between syntax and semantics?
Can a sentence be syntactically ok but semantically
Entailment: (should this be defined a la logic? Or should
it be defined in terms of human performance,
when were doing linguistics? What is "natural
Opacity: (Frege on sense vs. reference. Carnap on intension
Pragmatics vs. Semantics: (Presuppositions, Implicature,
Five "big issues", according to Partee
1. Psychogistic vs. non-psychologistic notions of meaning
(meaning in the head vs. meaning as objective)
2. Model-theoretic vs. representational systems.
3. Natural Language Metaphysics ("the naïve picture of the
4. Semantic atomism (are all meanings decomposable into
combinations of "semantic atoms" or "semantic
primitives" or "atomic concepts" which are
5. The relation between meaning and use. (literal meaning
or linguistic meaning or sentence meaning, vs.
contextual meaning or occasion meaning or speaker