Hand or Hammer? On Formal and Natural Languages in Semantics

Abstract
This paper does not deal with the topic of ‘the generosity of artificial languages from an Asian or a comparative perspective’. Rather, it is concerned with a particular case taken from a development in the Western tradition, when in the wake of the rise of formal logic at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century people in philosophy and later in linguistics started to use formal languages in the study of the semantics of natural languages. This undertaking rests on certain philosophical assumptions and instantiates a particular methodology, that we want to examine critically. However, that in itself is still too broad a topic for a single paper, so we will focus on a particular aspect, viz., the distinction between grammatical form and logical form and the crucial role it plays in how the relationship between natural languages and formal languages is understood in this tradition. We will uncover two basic assumptions that underlie the standard view on the distinction between grammatical form and logical form, and discuss how they have contributed to the shaping of a particular methodology and a particular view on the status of semantics as a discipline. But before we turn to the topic at hand, a few more words on the general nature of the investigation are in order. Its general aim is to find out how semantics constructs its object, i.e., we are interested in what semanticists view as the proper object of study, how they think this object can best be approached, and how they view the relations between their own undertaking and neighbouring disciplines that deal with related, or even the same kind of phenomena, such as cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, anthropology. The background assumption is that, much like in other disciplines, semantics, too, does not have its object of investigation cut out for itself by nature, but constructs it in a complex process that involves empirical elements (‘facts’ being already too dangerous a term), philosophical assumptions, and borrowings....
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