In Sandra Lapointe & Christopher Pincock (eds.), Innovations in the History of Analytical Philosophy. Palgrave-MacMillan. pp. 149--194 (2017)

Daniel W. Harris
Hunter College (CUNY)
Contemporary natural-language semantics began with the assumption that the meaning of a sentence could be modeled by a single truth condition, or by an entity with a truth-condition. But with the recent explosion of dynamic semantics and pragmatics and of work on non- truth-conditional dimensions of linguistic meaning, we are now in the midst of a shift away from a truth-condition-centric view and toward the idea that a sentence’s meaning must be spelled out in terms of its various roles in conversation. This communicative turn in semantics raises historical questions: Why was truth-conditional semantics dominant in the first place, and why were the phenomena now driving the communicative turn initially ignored or misunderstood by truth-conditional semanticists? I offer a historical answer to both questions. The history of natural-language semantics—springing from the work of Donald Davidson and Richard Montague—began with a methodological toolkit that Frege, Tarski, Carnap, and others had created to better understand artificial languages. For them, the study of linguistic meaning was subservient to other explanatory goals in logic, philosophy, and the foundations of mathematics, and this subservience was reflected in the fact that they idealized away from all aspects of meaning that get in the way of a one-to-one correspondence between sentences and truth-conditions. The truth-conditional beginnings of natural- language semantics are best explained by the fact that, upon turning their attention to the empirical study of natural language, Davidson and Montague adopted the methodological toolkit assembled by Frege, Tarski, and Carnap and, along with it, their idealization away from non-truth-conditional semantic phenomena. But this pivot in explana- tory priorities toward natural language itself rendered the adoption of the truth-conditional idealization inappropriate. Lifting the truth-conditional idealization has forced semanticists to upend the conception of linguistic meaning that was originally embodied in their methodology.
Keywords semantics  history of analytic philosophy  Tarski  Frege  Carnap  Montague  Davidson
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