Topic: HUMAN SEMANTICS
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The Stanley-Rett Debate
By Jason Stanley
Extra-linguistic context appears to have a profound effect on the determination of what is expressed by the use of linguistic expressions. For a bewildering range of very different linguistic constructions, adhering to relatively straightforward linguistic intuition about what is expressed leads us to the conclusion that facts about the nonlinguistic context play many different roles in determining what is said. Furthermore, that so many different constructions betray this sort of sensitivity to extra-linguistic context understandably leads to pessimism about rescuing the straightforward intuitions while preserving any sort of systematicity in the theory of meaning.
A presumption motivating the pessimistic inclination is that, if we accept the ordinary intuitions, what appears to be very different ways in which context affects semantic content in fact are different ways in which context affects linguistic content. Pessimism is a natural reaction to those who adopt this presumption, because if appearance is a good guide to the facts in this domain, then there are just too many ways in which context affects semantic content to preserve systematicity. One common and natural reaction to these facts is, therefore, to deny the semantic significance of the ordinary intuitions, thereby relegating the project of explaining the apparent effects of extra-linguistic context on semantic content to a domain of inquiry outside the theory of meaning proper. So doing removes the threat context poses to the systematicity of semantic explanation, but at the cost of reducing the interest of the semantic project.
In this paper, I explore a different reaction to the situation. My purpose is to undermine the presumption that what appear to be very different effects of context on semantic content are very different effects. My challenge is of necessity rather limited, since it is too implausible to trace all effects of extra-linguistic context on semantic content to the very same source. Rather, I will take, as a case study, three superficially very different effects of context on semantic content, and show that they are due to the very same mechanism, what I call Nominal Restriction. I thereby hope to provide convincing evidence of the promise of the project of reducing all apparent effects of context on semantic content to a small number of sources.
Published in Logical Form and Language, edited by Peters and Preyer, Oxford University Press (2002)
Context, Compositionality and Calamity
By Jessica Rett
This paper examines an attempt made in a series of articles (Stanley 2002, a.o.) to create a syntactic placeholder for contextual information. The initial shortcoming of Stanley’s proposal is that it does not easily integrate these placeholders with domain-restricting information syntactically encoded elsewhere in the utterance. Thus, Stanley erroneously predicts that a sentence in which quantifier restricting information encoded in (for example) a prepositional phrase conflicts with quantifier-restriction valued by context is internally incoherent.
I continue by exploring the space of possible solutions to this problem that are available to Stanley, demonstrating how each of these possible solutions results in its own interpretation problem and, ultimately, fails. In doing so, I argue that Stanley’s syntactic/semantic approach to context is ultimately untenable.
Source: Semantics Archive
To appear in Mind & Language
Of related interest:
Context Dependence and Compositionality
By Francis Jeffrey Pelletier
Some utterances of sentences such as ?Every student failed the midterm exam? and ?There is no beer? are widely held to be true in a conversation despite the facts that not every student in the world failed the midterm exam and that there is, in fact, some beer somewhere. For instance, the speaker might be talking about some particular course, or about his refrigerator. Stanley and Szabo (in Mind & Language , 15, 2000) consider many different approaches to how contextual information might give meaning to these ?restricted quantifier domains?, and find all of them but one wanting. The present paper argues that their considerations against one of these other theories, considerations that turn on notions of compositionality, are incorrect.
Appeared in Mind & Language, April 2003, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 148-161(14)
Posted by Tony Marmo at 00:01 BST
Updated: Saturday, 4 June 2005 12:55 BST