MoL-2009-08: Truth-Theoretic Contextualism: Dissolving the Minimalism/Contextualism Debate

MoL-2009-08: Beek, Wouter (2009) Truth-Theoretic Contextualism: Dissolving the Minimalism/Contextualism Debate. [Report]

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Abstract

The scope of the research field of semantics seems to shrink in the recent debate between the viewpoints of contextualism and (semantic) minimalism. Minimalists hold that semantics is the formal endeavour that derives a minimal proposition from the syntactically structured input string. This semantic content is then fed to the subsequent pragmatic module in which meaning is supplemented in a non-formalisable and non-tractable way. Since most of what we intuitively think of as the content that gets meaningfully communicated in making situated utterances belongs to the output of the latter, pragmatic module (i.e. the so-called `speech act content'), minimalists argue that semantics is only minimally relevant to the pursuit of formulating a theory that explains successful communication. Contextualists maintain that in the minimalist endeavour, the realm of the semantic (i.e. the formal approach to meaning) has been narrowed down to such an extent, that what is left is not even interesting with respect to the elucidation of communication. They therefore conclude that the formal, semantic approach to meaning { at least from the point of view of communication { should be done away with in theorizing. What replaces the formal tradition is a plurality of casually formulated principles that purport to describe acts of communication in abstract terms, e.g. `that the communicated content be relevant to the addressee'. These principles, although interesting in themselves, are neither mutually interrelated, nor stringently verified with respect to empirical instances of communication that might invalidate them. In this essay I will be concerned with the minimalism/contextualism-debate from a methodological point of view. Although the here espoused methodological considerations will have a profound influences upon the descriptive linguistic practice, the discussion will proceed along conceptual lines. As the minimalism/contextualism-debate has progressed, some minimalists have joined the contextualists in the opinion that formal semantics cannot explain communication (not even to a meagre extent). For instance the small bit that Borg [6] takes semantics to consist of, after all the critique of the contextualists has been taken to heart, is unlikely to make many philosophers of language very happy. She says that her book \turns out to be a denial of the bunch of views often labelled `the linguistic turn'." And all the while we were thinking that, finally, philosophy would get somewhere! As is apparent from the above quote by Borg, in the discussion over semantic content there seems to be a tendency, on both the minimalist and the contextualist side, to close down most of the semanticist's workspace in philosophy. But there are still so many tools in that workspace none of the crude devices of any of the other philosophical denominations can match. Or so I will argue. I think that abolishing the traditional endeavour of formal semantics with respect to the elucidation of communication, from a theoretical point of view, is premature. But what is more, a theory of communication can only be legitimately called scientific provided the analysis of meaning that drives it conforms to formalistic strictures (such as those laid down by Tarski, see Section 2.2). Given the fact that there is a potential infinitude of distinct utterances of which communication might consist, only a formal mechanism will be able to guarantee that we are able to explain the meaning of every natural language sentence. This is why, in keeping in line with the formal tradition, I maintain that a theory of the transmission of meaning (i.e. communication) must (amongst other things) adhere to the formalization criterion (which is explained in Section 2.2). But I will not merely be defending tradition here. I will make fundamental alterations in the light of worthwhile considerations that can be drawn from the minimalism/contextualism-debate. This will result in a reconceptualization of the traditional approach towards semantics, one in which language is viewed upon as inherently intertwined with the human purpose of information interchange. The way in which a theory of meaning and a theory of communication ought to be interrelated was poignantly formulated by Pagin and Pelletier [35, p. 35] in the following way: A natural methodology for justifying a semantic theory S of a natural language L is to see S as part of a more comprehensive theory C of communication by means of L. The purpose of this essay is to live up to this programmatic formulation. The reason why I do not want to treat of semantics as exempt from communicative use, besides its being arguably foreign to the essence of language, is that such an account cannot be linked to methods of empirical verification. Once we observe the dynamics of linguistic interchange, it is clear that whatever semantic theory one might come up with, it must be able to explain how meaning changes in the face of a change in language use. Moreover, while formal strictures underdetermine the semantic effort, and while intuitions as to what individual sentences mean do not provide a steady beacon, a semantic theory that does not take into account empirical instances of communication, has { scientifically speaking { no objective verification criterion to go by. And yet it is crucial to check the theoretical claims we are making against concrete instances of what we purport to be explaining in the first place (i.e. specific instances of communication). A further distinction we need to make is that between what Davidson calls `the uncovering of logical structure' and `the analysis of concepts' (see Section 2.3.1). The former is concerned with positing just enough structure in order to form a truth-based theory of meaning. It is this notion of semantics that we shall be concerned with in the present essay, since it effectively narrows down to that part of semantic theorizing that suffices for the explication of communication. The latter kind of semantics, i.e. the one termed `the analysis of concepts', digs much deeper and tries to unravel the logical structure of words and phrases far beyond the point that is needed for explaining communication. From the foregoing it is clear that in this essay I will only be concerned with the former strand of semantics. I will take it to be a defining characteristic of communication that whatever concepts the theory puts forward in order to explain an interpreter's understanding of a speaker's speech, the ingredients the interpreter must attain in order to be able to do this, must be readily available to that interpreter. This means that a theory must adhere to what I call the principle of communication: Principle of communication: A speaker can only communicate what an interpreter may be likely to catch up on. I will adhere to this principle constantly. Most notably it is an inherent property of the methodology of radical interpretation that I will make extensive use of. Because this methodology echoes the same assumptions that I have put forward above, I will formulate my solution to the minimalism/contextualism-debate in terms of truth-theoretic semantics and radical interpretation. These will be extensively discussed in Chapter 2. In Chapter 3 I will provide an overview of the recent minimalism/contextualism-debate. In Chapter 4 I will combine the resources of the foregoing two chapters in redefining truth-theoretic semantics, so that it will incorporate the contextual supplementation of meaning. Finally, in Chapter 5 I will evaluate the ability of the various theoretical frameworks, that have been introduced in the preceding chapters, to explain communication.

Item Type: Report
Report Nr: MoL-2009-08
Series Name: Master of Logic Thesis (MoL) Series
Year: 2009
Date Deposited: 12 Oct 2016 14:38
Last Modified: 12 Oct 2016 14:38
URI: https://eprints.illc.uva.nl/id/eprint/815

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