Minimal Semantics

Minimal Semantics

Minimal Semantics

Minimal Semantics

Synopsis

Minimal Semantics asks what a theory of literal linguistic meaning is for--if you were to be given a working theory of meaning for a language right now, what would you be able to do with it? Emma Borg sets out to defend a formal approach to semantic theorizing from a relatively new type of opponent--advocates of what she calls "dual pragmatics." According to dual pragmatists, rich pragmatic processes play two distinct roles in linguistic comprehension: as well as operating in a post-semantic capacity to determine the implicatures of an utterance, they also operate prior to the determination of truth-conditional content for a sentence. That is to say, they have an integral role to play within what is usually thought of as the semantic realm. Borg believes dual pragmatic accounts constitute the strongest contemporary challenge to standard formal approaches to semantics since they challenge the formal theorist to show not merely that there is some role for formal processes on route to determination of semantic content, but that such processes are sufficient for determining content. Minimal Semantics provides a detailed examination of this school of thought, introducing readers who are unfamiliar with the topic to key ideas like relevance theory and contextualism, and looking in detail at where these accounts diverge from the formal approach. Borg's defense of formal semantics has two main parts: first, she argues that the formal approach is most naturally compatible with an important and well-grounded psychological theory, namely the Fodorian modular picture of the mind. Then she argues that the main arguments adduced by dual pragmatists against formal semantics--concerning apparent contextual intrusions into semantic content--can in fact be countered by a formal theory. The defense holds, however, only if we are sensitive to the proper conditions of success for a semantic theory. Specifically, we should reject a range of onerous constraints on semantic theorizing (e.g., that it answer epistemic or metaphysical questions, or that it explain our communicative skills) and instead adopt a quite minimal picture of semantics.

Excerpt

How, we might ask, do ordinary speakers succeed in using elements of a natural language (like English or Japanese) to convey meaning and communicate about the world and themselves? What kind of thing must an agent know to be a competent language user and what kind of cognitive architecture might lie behind our linguistic abilities? The answer I want to give (at least as far as questions of meaning are concerned) is not, perhaps, especially fashionable at the moment. For I want to argue for a kind of formal approach to the study of language, which has its roots in the work of Frege, Russell, the early Wittgenstein, and Carnap, and continues through into such approaches as the truth-conditional theory of meaning of Davidson et al., and the model-theoretic approach championed by Kaplan and others. (As we will see below, a more fashionable approach to the study of meaning in language is to focus on the phenomenon of language in use.) Although, of course, there are substantial differences of detail between opposing formal accounts, all such accounts share a fundamental ethos. According to formal theorists, the point at which to study language is, at least initially, in terms of the formal features of linguistic expressions. Thus we can talk about the meanings of words and sentences, where these are items assessed in terms of their formal features, prior to, or abstracted from, questions about the ways in which these expressions are used on a particular occasion or the communicative aims of the speakers who utter the words and sentences in question. For formal theorists, literal linguistic meaning is something which attaches to language independent, to some extent at least, of the use to which the language is being put. I'll say a bit more about what I take to be characteristic of formal approaches in general in §1.1, and we will look at one particular kind of approach which clearly demonstrates a commitment to the formal

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