Topic: HUMAN SEMANTICS
Why Compositionality Won't Go Away:
Reflections on Horwich's `Deflationary' Theory
By Jerry Fodor and Ernie Lepore
Compositionality is the idea that the meanings of complex expressions (or concepts) are constructed from the meanings of the less complex expressions (or concepts) that are their constituents. Over the last few years, we have just about convinced ourselves that compositionality is the sovereign test for theories of lexical meaning. So hard is this test to pass, we think, that it filters out practically all of the theories of lexical meaning that are current in either philosophy or cognitive science. Among the casualties are, for example, the theory that lexical meanings are statistical structures (like stereotypes); the theory that the meaning of a word is its use; the theory that knowing the meaning of (at least some) words requires having a recognitional capacity for (at least some) of the things that it applies to; and the theory that knowing the meaning of a word requires knowing criteria for applying it. Indeed, we think that only two theories of the lexicon survive the compositionality constraint: viz., the theory that all lexical meanings are primitive and the theory that some lexical meanings are primitive and the rest are definitions. So compositionality does a lot of work in lexical semantics, according to our lights.
Well, so imagine our consternation and surprise when, having just about convinced ourselves of all this, we heard that Paul Horwich has on offer a `deflationary' account of compositionality, according to which,...the compositionality of meaning imposes no constraint at all on how the meaning properties of words are constituted (154;our emphasis).
Surely, we thought, that can't be right; surely compositionality must rule out at least some theories about what word meanings are; for example, the theory that they are rocks, or that they are sparrows or chairs; for how could the meanings of complex expressions be constructed from any of those? What, we wondered, is going on here?
This essay, together with a number of others on related topics, is reprinted in the book `The Compositionality Papers' by Fodor and Lepore (OUP).