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"Meanings as Composable Scores", Paul Pietroski (Philosophy, Rutgers)

Tuesday, April 09, 2019, 01:00pm - 02:30pm

Busch Campus, Psych 101

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Abstract

Human children regularly acquire languages that connect meanings with pronunciations in distinctive ways. These meanings are often described as sets of “external things” that are independent of the mental capacities that humans employ in understanding linguistic expressions. For example, linguists and philosophers often propose theories according to which the meaning of ‘grey rabbit’ is a certain set of rabbits, or a function that maps the relevant rabbits to a certain truth value, or a function that maps each possible world to a function that maps the relevant rabbits at that world to a certain truth value. On these views—explicitly formulated in standard textbooks—the meanings of ‘most’ and ‘jumped’ are also sets of some kind, and a sentence like ‘Most of the grey rabbits jumped’ is said to have a truth condition that can be specified in terms of the rabbits and events of jumping that speakers talk about in various ways. In the talk, I’ll discuss several reasons for rejecting such views in favor of an idea whose roots can be found in Chomsky’s work, going back to 1957: meanings (and pronunciations) are more like composable instructions that can be executed by certain performance systems. Some of the relevant evidence is from a series of experimental studies of how speakers understand quantificational expressions like ‘most’. I’ll connect these studies with a broader conception of meaning that is independently motivated by the ubiquitous phenomena of lexical polysemy.

Background Reading

Human children regularly acquire languages that connect meanings with pronunciations in distinctive ways. These meanings are often described as sets of “external things” that are independent of the mental capacities that humans employ in understanding linguistic expressions. For example, linguists and philosophers often propose theories according to which the meaning of ‘grey rabbit’ is a certain set of rabbits, or a function that maps the relevant rabbits to a certain truth value, or a function that maps each possible world to a function that maps the relevant rabbits at that world to a certain truth value. On these views—explicitly formulated in standard textbooks—the meanings of ‘most’ and ‘jumped’ are also sets of some kind, and a sentence like ‘Most of the grey rabbits jumped’ is said to have a truth condition that can be specified in terms of the rabbits and events of jumping that speakers talk about in various ways. In the talk, I’ll discuss several reasons for rejecting such views in favor of an idea whose roots can be found in Chomsky’s work, going back to 1957: meanings (and pronunciations) are more like composable instructions that can be executed by certain performance systems. Some of the relevant evidence is from a series of experimental studies of how speakers understand quantificational expressions like ‘most’. I’ll connect these studies with a broader conception of meaning that is independently motivated by the ubiquitous phenomena of lexical polysemy.