Is semantics computational?

Both formal semantics and cognitive semantics are the source of important insights about language. By developing precise statements of the rules of meaning in fragmentary, abstract languages, formalists have been able to offer perspicuous accounts of how we might come to know such rules and use them to communicate with others. Conversely, by charting the overall landscape of interpretations, cognitivists have documented how closely interpretations draw on the commonsense knowledge that lets us make our way in the world. There is no opposition between these insights. Sooner or later we will have a semantics that responds to both. However, developing such a semantics is profoundly difficult, because there are certain tensions to be overcome in reconciling the two perspectives. For one thing, the overall landscape of meaning does seem to be characterized by a much richer ontology and more dynamic categories than are exhibited by the fragments typically studied in the formal tradition. One sign of strain is the recent tendency to talk of “procedural”, “non-compositional”, or “computational” semantics, as in Hamm, Kamp and van Lambalgen 2006, hereafter HK&vL. We think such locutions can serve as useful reminders to keep semantics fixed on the central question of how language allows us to share information that some have and others need to get. However, there is some danger that formalists will merely by put off by an idea that, taken literally, may not be such a good one. In this short article, we want to explore and defend the traditional realist view attributed by HK&vL to Lewis among others. In fact, this view offers a well-developed, extremely straightforward and robust account of the relation between semantics and cognition. Moreover, while the realist view has ways of accommodating the representationalist insights of DRT (Lewis 1979; Thomason 1990; Stalnaker 1998), it remains unclear how “computational” semantics can account for the key data for the realist view: cases where we judge interlocutors to be ignorant about aspects of meaning in their native language (Kripke 1972; Putnam 1975; Stalnaker 1979; Williamson 1994)..
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