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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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
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
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
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

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