Graduate studies at Western
Philosophical Topics 36 (2):99-121 (2008)
|Abstract||Formal semantics is an enterprise which accounts for meaning in formal, mathematical terms, in the expectation of providing a helpful explication1 of the concept of the meaning of specific word kinds (such as logical ones), or of words and expressions generally. Its roots go back to Frege, who proposed exempting concepts, meanings of predicative expressions, from the legislation of psychology and relocating them under that of mathematics. This started a spectacular enterprise, fostered at first within formal logic and later moving into the realm of natural languages, and featuring a series of eminent scholars, from Tarski and Carnap to Montague and David Lewis. Partly independently of this, Frege set the agenda for a long-term discussion of the question of what a natural language is, his own contribution being that language should be seen not as a matter of subjective psychology, but rather as a reality objective in the sense in which mathematics is objective. His formal semantics, then, was just an expression of this conception of language. And many theoreticians now take it for granted that formal semantics is inseparably connected with a Platonist conception of language. Moreover, the more recent champions of formal semantics, Montague and David Lewis, took for granted that natural language is nothing else than a structure of the very kind envisaged by the theories of formal logicians. While Montague claims quite plainly that there is no substantial difference between formal and natural languages ("I reject the contention," he says, 1974, p. 188, "that an important theoretical difference exists between formal and natural languages"), Lewis states that it is fully correct to say that a linguistic community entertains a language in the form of a mathematical structure ("we can say", states Lewis, 1975, p..|
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