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.