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

people have.

"linguistic nominalism": the fundamental building

blocks of language are individual people’s 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 …

• (late) Wittgenstein

• "ordinary language philosophy"

• "Structuralism"

• "Social Construction"

• "Conventionalism"

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

‘abduction’–to be distinguished from induction

and deduction".


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

arbitrary convention"


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 that’s 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 can’t be defined

that way. [the Putnam (etc) twin-Earth stuff]

(Chomsky reply: just shows you that meaning isn’t

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 men’s room




meansnn to stop your car



‘Es schneit’ meansnn it’s 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 we’re doing linguistics? What is "natural


Opacity: (Frege on sense vs. reference. Carnap on intension

vs. extension)

Pragmatics vs. Semantics: (Presuppositions, Implicature,

indexicals, demonstratives.

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

presumably innate?

5. The relation between meaning and use. (literal meaning

or linguistic meaning or sentence meaning, vs.

contextual meaning or occasion meaning or speaker