Semantics of Natural Language [Book Review]

Review of Metaphysics 26 (3):531-533 (1973)

J. L. Austin, in "Ifs and Cans," proclaimed the common hope that we soon "may see the birth, through the joint labors of philosophers, grammarians, and numerous other students of language, of a true and comprehensive science of language." The problem has always been with the "joint labors" part. Philosophers have always been willing to issue linguists dictums and linguists have been happy to teach philosophers "plain facts." Austin’s general view of language, and his particular notion of performative utterance, can be found in the writing of J. R. Firth, the most commanding British linguist of Austin’s generation, but Austin never refers to Firth. In the present volume, however, we find clear and exciting evidence of genuinely joint labors on the part of philosophers and linguists. They stem from a summer conference in 1969 rounded out with contributions from notables. To two thick issues of Synthese the editors have added a dazzling piece by Saul Kripke, two substantial pieces by James McCawley and J. R. Ross, a short paper by Paul Ziff, and a reprint of P. F. Strawson’s "Grammar and Philosophy." This is an invaluable book and the best book among the many now available concerning the interaction of linguistics and philosophy: worth the cost, which the contributors attempted to reduce through foregoing royalties. The philosophers in this volume hold, or hold intriguing, the view that the semantics of a natural language can and must, in effect, be a theory of truth for a language in much the manner that Tarski suggested, and provided, for artificial language: the recursive specification of biconditionals in which the left hand gives the structural description of an object language sentence and the right hand, the truth conditions in the metalanguage. In "homophonic" translation this requirement can be trivially satisfied simply by mentioning the sentence on the left that one uses on the right: one makes the requirement non-trivial by forcing enough into the recursive specification so that one captures the native speaker’s implicit semantic competence. In this volume, the "orthodox" Davidsonian program, which takes the syntax of the metalanguage to be standard predicate logic, is ably argued by John Wallace ; Richard Montague, David Lewis, and Jaakko Hintikka would want an intensional logic covering modality and propositional attitudes. The linguists who find this philosophical climate most appealing are called "generative semanticists": McCawley, Ross, George Lakoff and others argue that any proposed semantic rule will eventually prove necessary to syntax too and that, hence, the deepest level of syntactical form will be equivalent to semantic form. Whatever the ultimate fate of this joint program, it leads here to much exciting interaction between linguists and philosophers: linguists who welcome the machinery and conceptual standards of modern logic, and philosophers who try to grasp the specifics of crucial issues in recent linguistic theory. Even if Quine’s doubts, here sketched, and Chomsky’s currently unpublished more technical objections should be well-founded, nonetheless the joint labor will have been very much worthwhile. Aside from this general debate about semantics, there are several papers covering more specific issues. The papers of J. A. Fodor, Terence Parsons, and Ross concern adverbs and the logical form of action sentences; several papers, particularly B. H. Partee’s, examine "Opacity, Coreference, and Pronouns." In all these papers one notes the fulfillment of Austin’s hope that philosophic and linguistic arguments should become intermixed, if not at times properly indistinguishable. Perhaps the most enjoyable and exciting paper stands aside from linguistics: Saul Kripke’s "Naming and Necessity." Kripke here argues quite informally for the separation of analytic, a priori, and necessary that is required for a Kripke style, S5, modal logic with de re modalities. "Gold is a yellow metal," for example, turns out to be contingent, while "Heat is the motion of particles" is necessary but a posteriori ; and that philosopher’s stone of stones, "The morning star is the evening star," is discovered to be necessary but a posteriori.—J. L.
Keywords Catholic Tradition  Contemporary Philosophy  General Interest
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ISBN(s) 0034-6632
DOI revmetaph197326319
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