Semantics: An Interdisciplinary Reader in Philosophy, Linguistics, and Psychology [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 26 (1):175-177 (1972)

This collection, with an agreeable proportion of new material and a sensible selection of old, is worth the money and ought to be on the shelf of anyone interested in recent work on language by philosophers, psychologists, and linguists. The section by linguists proper is the longer and more up to date but this seems quite in order: today neither work in philosophy nor psychology can provide a plausible center-of-attention that will take in the other and linguistics as flanking material. For better and worse linguistics is the centerpiece: and the debate between "interpretive" and "generative" semanticists, here respectively represented by Chomsky and George Lakoff, is the center, most likely, of the centerpiece. The generative semanticists suggest that the base and semantic components ultimately come to the same: the distinction between syntactic rules and semantic rules is presumed as in the Chomskian position but it is thought that the algorithm of wellformedness will turn out to provide all the rules needed for semantic interpretation. The interpretive semantic alternative, here argued by Chomsky in a paper otherwise difficult to obtain except in mimeo, distinguishes semantic from base component by insisting, particularly in matters respecting reference and quantification, that transformations are not meaning-invariant, and that, hence, the semantic component is fed by both the base and surface structures independently. To put the interpretive view in terms of Tarski-cum-Davidsonian biconditionals, we would no longer have on the left side of the biconditional one ’structural-descriptive’ string but rather two separate strings, one surface and the other deep, that would jointly and independently determine meaning. The generative semanticists, following James McCawley, stress that their argument against autonomous deep syntax follows in form Morris Halle’s well-known argument against a phonemic level of description supposed intermediate between superficial surface syntax and systematic phonetics. The basic question one raises against this argument is whether logico-semantic form constitutes itself for linguistic science as one level of description and as an essentially linguistic level of description. One can see an obvious place for philosophers in these arguments, though one finds in this volume very little suggestion of philosophical-semantic work, in the Frege-Carnap tradition, that Donald Davidson, Richard Montague, John Wallace, etc., have been carrying on lately. There is a previously unpublished paper by David Wiggins in this vein, but though Wiggins is his usual brilliant and playfully convoluted self, this is too idiosyncratic and occasional a piece to represent what is by way of a movement. Indeed, aside from the Wiggins-Alston material, the philosopher’s section is solid but familiar material: H. P. Grice’s famous paper on meaning and Paul Ziff’s criticism of Grice’s theory; Gilbert Harman’s "Three Levels of Meaning"; late-1960s papers by Donnellan, Linsky, Quine, Strawson, Vendler, and Searle on reference. But this aside this volume vividly makes the point that philosophy and linguistics have never been more entangled with each other in a genuine working relationship. Chomsky’s arguments come in part from recent philosopher’s work. There is evident concern by linguists with presuppositions and performatives. "Fact," an important and not easily available paper by Paul and Carol Kilparski, sparks the philosophic imagination—as do new pieces on lexical entries, semantic features, and categories by Charles Fillmore, Manfried Bierwisch, and others. Almost enough to justify J. L. Austin’s hopes for a joint endeavor of linguists, philosophers, and psychologists: one sees in the footnotes and bibliographies, in the issue and vocabulary, that disciplines are joining and reflecting upon each other in day-to-day work. The psychology section also contains one large new piece: a splendidly energetic defense of linguistic behaviorism by Charles Osgood. One finds balance for this in Jerry Fodor’s "Could meaning be an rm?" And some good, current, and often not easily available material by George Miller, Eric Lennberg, and others. The "overviews" for the various sections are quite distinguished themselves: but this is only in keeping with general character of this reader.—J. L.
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