Compositionality, Understanding, and Proofs

Mind 118 (471):713 - 737 (2009)
The principle of semantic compositionality, as Jerry Fodor and Ernie Lepore have emphasized, imposes constraints on theories of meaning that it is hard to meet with psychological or epistemic accounts. Here, I argue that this general tendency is exemplified in Michael Dummett's account of meaning. On that account, the so-called manifestability requirement has the effect that the speaker who understands a sentence s must be able to tell whether or not s satisfies central semantic conditions. This requirement is not met by truth-conditional accounts of meaning. On Dummett's view, it is met by a proof conditional account: understanding amounts to knowledge of what counts as a proof of a sentence. A speaker is supposed always to be capable of deciding whether or not a given object is a proof of a given sentence she understands. This requirement comes into conflict with compositionality. If meaning is compositionally determined, then all you need for understanding a sentence is what you get from combining your understanding of the parts according to the mode of composition. But that knowledge is not always sufficient for recognizing any proof at all of a given sentence. Dummett's proof-theoretic argument to the contrary is mistaken.
Keywords Realism-essay
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DOI 10.1093/mind/fzp093
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