Review of problems of compositionality [Book Review]

Josh Dever
University of Texas at Austin
Problems of Compositionality is a revised version of Zolt´an Szab´o’s 1995 doctoral dissertation. Of its five chapters, three have appeared (in heavily modified form) in print independently1, so I will concentrate most of my remarks on the second and third chapters, which remain unpublished outside the book. As it happens, I find these two chapters to be the most philosophically rewarding of the book. The principle of compositionality is a general constraint on the shape of a theory of meaning. Szab´o gives the following initial formulation of the principle: The meaning of a complex expression is determined by the meanings of its constituents and by its structure. (3) Recent discussion of compositionality branches in a number of different directions, including (at least) disputes over the precise formulation of the principle, investigations of the mathematical features of various such formulations, exploration of a plethora of apparent counterexamples to the compositionality of natural languages, scholarly work on the history of the principle (especially its role in Frege), and employment of the principle as a tool in other philosophical disputes. Szab´o’s path through this thicket begins, in the first chapter, with a defense of an idiosyncratic version of the compositionality principle against some more traditional alternatives, proceeds in the second and third chapters to the oft-neglected and philosophically crucial task of asking why the principle of compositionality ought to be one we seek to impose, and concludes in the fourth and fifth chapters by considering and rejecting two putative counterexamples (manifesting in the semantics of adjectives and of definite descriptions) to the principle. The principle of compositionality is most commonly given a functional implementation – a language L is compositional iff the meaning of a complex expression α of L is a function of the meanings of the parts of α and the syntactic structure of α. Equivalently, L is compositional iff synonyms can be intersubstituted salva significa- tio in complex expressions of L.2 Szab´o, however, rejects the functional/substitutional....
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