Why compositionality won't go away: Reflections on Horwich's 'deflationary' theory

Ratio 14 (4):350–368 (2001)
Abstract
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.1 Over the last few years, we have just about convinced ourselves that compositionality is the sovereign test for theories of lexical meaning.2 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.
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Philip Robbins (2005). The Myth of Reverse Compositionality. Philosophical Studies 125 (2):251 - 275.
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