Two Kinds of Semantics

In an earlier post I introduced a distinction between what I call P-semantics and L-semantics as a way of neutrally formulating the contrast between frigidty and rigidity.  The distinction between P and L semantics corrosponds to what one takes the semantic task to be. One might take the semantic task to be that of giving the meaning of and truth-conditions for thoughts, as Michael Devitt does. For instance, here is how he characterizes the semantic task in the precis to Coming to our Senses: A Naturalistic Program for Semantic Localism.

In Coming I seek a solution to this problem [i.e. identifying the semantic task] by focusing on the purposes for which we ascribe meanings (or contents) using `that’ clauses (“t-clauses”) in attitude ascriptions: in particular, the purposes of explaining intentional behavior and of using thoughts and utterances as guides to reality. I call these purposes “semantic.” I say further that a property plays a “semantic” role if and only if it is a property of the sort specified by t-clauses, and, if it were the case that a token thought had the property, it would be in virtue of this fact that the token can explain the behavior of the thinker or be used as a guide to reality. We are then in the position to add the following explication to the statement of the basic task: A property is a meaning if and only if it plays a semantic role in that sense. And the basic task is to explain the nature of meanings in that sense (Devitt 1997)

For Devitt meaning is primarily a property of thoughts and the semantic task is to explain what property they have which allows them to play the role in behavior that they do. This is what I call P-semantics.

On the other hand, one might take the semantic task to be that of giving the meaning of sentences independently of their being used to express any thought. This way of thinking about semantics has it as simply a part of grammar. To illustrate, if I say ‘Saul Kripke likes tea’ talking about my dog and you say it talking about Saul Kripke we both use the same sentence, though we refer to different objects (Strawson 1950/1985). We do so in the sense that we use something with the same physical structure but we also use something with a certain syntactic structure, something that has a noun phrase and a verb phrase as part of its structure like (1)

(1) [S [NP [proper noun, Saul Kripke]], [VP [verb, likes], [np, tea]]]

This is roughly Kent Bach’s position. According to Bach the job of semantics is to provide an interpretation of (1) that explains how it can be used to do the things that people do with it. Here are a couple of quotes from his 1999 paper “The Semantic Pragmatic Distinction: What it is and Why it Matters” and his 2002 paper “Semantic, Pragmatic”

I take the semantics of a sentence to be a projection of its syntax. That is, semantic structure is interpreted syntactic structure. Contents of sentences are determined compositionally; they are a function of the contents of the sentence’s constituents and their syntactic relations. (Bach 2002)

Semantic information about sentences is part of sentence grammar, and it includes information about expressions whose meanings are relevant to use rather than to truth conditions. Linguistically encoded information can pertain to how the present utterance relates to the previous, to the topic of the present utterance, or to what the speaker is doing. That there are these sorts of linguistically encoded information shows that the business of sentence semantics cannot be confined to giving the proposition it expresses. (Bach 1999)

This is what I call L-semantics. It seems to me that both of these conceptions are legitimate conceptions of something that should be called ‘semantics’. Both kinds of theories will be interested in giving the truth-conditions of sentences. One then is faced with a choice between three options.

1. L-semantics just is P-semantics

2. P-semantics just is L-semantics

3. L-semantics and P-semantics are distinct and need distinct theories

1 is perhaps the most popular. Jerry Fodor (Fodor 1998) endorses 1 when he says “…English has no semantics. Learning English…[is] learning how to associate its sentences with the corresponding thoughts.” 2 is perhaps less popular but it is the kind of view that followers of Seller’s will likely endorse. Frigidity claims 3.

4 thoughts on “Two Kinds of Semantics

  1. First, a small point: I’m not seeing how the first two of the 3 options you listed could be distinct. Reading ‘just is’ as ‘is identical to’, those two options collapse into one. (‘A = B’ is in no relevant way different from ‘B = A’.)

    About Sellars: If I understand his view correctly (a big ‘if’), then what he’s saying is that we should begin our inquiry into semantics by identifying the semantic properties–i.e. the speaker-meanings–of token speech acts. It is crucial for him that we do so WITHOUT reference to the thoughts that speakers express; positing thoughts is, on his view, a later step–one that we take only when we’ve gotten clear about the semantic properties of speech acts (i.e. their speaker-meanings).

    Since speech acts cannot, on his view, “derive” their speaker-meanings from the thoughts that cause them, Sellars needs some other way of saying what the speaker-meaning of a given speech act is. His solution, as far as I understand it, is that the speaker-meaning of a given speech act is a function of the role that this speech act plays in the speaker’s overall behavioral and linguistic economy. This is, of course, vague, and probably wrong as it stands, but it is enough for us to see clearly that what people generally call “pragmatics” and what RB is calling “P-semantics” is involved, on Sellars’ view, in determining the speaker-meaning of a speech act.

    Now, from speaker-meanings, we can build up in two ways:

    One is to posit thoughts–token internal states that have roughly the same semantic properties as the token speech acts they (causally) engender.

    The other way of building up from speaker-meanings is to take what is common to all of the distinct, idiosyncratic speaker-meanings of any particular “sign-design” (i.e. an expression-type, individuated in non-semantic, non-intentional terms), and claim that THIS is the general semantic content of that sign-design. Put slightly differently, Sellars’ claim is that the content of an expression-TYPE is a what you get when you strip away all of the idiosyncrasies of speaker-meaning from the speaker-meanings of each of the token speech acts that falls under that type, and focus only on the commonalities.

    With all that in mind, I don’t see how fans of Sellars, let alone Sellars himself, would endorse the claim that P-semantics just is L-semantics.

    P-semantics, if I understand it, is the semantics of token speech acts–it’s the semantics that shores up speaker-meanings. L-semantics, if I understand it, is the semantics of expression-TYPES. It is a theory of the general truth-condition that an expression-type has, when one ignores indexicals, and other “contextually-determined” factors. So, for Sellars to endorse an equivalence between P- and L-semantics would be for him to claim that semantics of token speech acts is the same as the semantics of expression-types. I don’t think he would have fallen into such an obvious error.

  2. Hey David!

    Thanks for the comment!!

    I guess buy ‘just is’ I meant ‘is explanatorily reducuble to’ not ‘=’…so when I say that ‘P-semantics just is L-semantics’ I mean that the semantic properties of thought are explanatorily reducuble to the semantic properties of language…does that help?

    I don’t see why you say “what [Sellers is] saying is that we should begin our inquiry into semantics by identifying the semantic properties–i.e. the speaker-meanings–of token speech acts.” It is true that for Sellers we start with sentences, but I don’t see why (or HOW) Sellers is allowed to appeal to ‘speaker-meanings’ at this point. What we start with is just a bunch of sentences and we try to determine what the meanings of the sentences are…and then we posit mental entities, ‘thoughts,’ which derive their semantic content from the semantic content of the sentences…so the semantics of thought are explanatorily reducible to the semantics of sentences…or as I put it P-semantics just is L-semantics…I was not saying, or at least I did not mean to be saying, that for Sellers the semanitcs of tokens is given by types…

    Also, it is not exactly the case that P-semantics is the semantics of token sentences. It is really supposed to be the semantics of thoughts but the way that we get at the thoughts is by examining token utterances…also there is no reason that L-semantics, which you are right is the semantics of sentence types, must be a “a theory of the general truth-condition that an expression-type has, when one ignores indexicals, and other “contextually-determined” factors”. Some English words straightforwardly have their meanings determined by ‘contextual’ factors (indexicals are a prime example of this) and so can’t be ignored in an L-semantic theory…

  3. […] really caught my interest was his comments at the beginning of part F where he seems to admit that some kind of causal theory has to be right for the way thoughts work but not for the linguistic mea……is there any other way to interpret these remarks? Also, does anyone else feel like they are […]

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