Could semantics be something else? Philosophical challenges for formal semantics

When in 1980, on the Third Amsterdam Colloquium, Johan van Benthem read a paper with the title ‘Why is Semantics What?’ (cf. [1]), I was puzzled: Wasn’t it obvious what semantics is? Why did our concept of it stand in need of justification? Later, much later, I came to appreciate what Van Benthem was doing in this paper (and in some others). Questioning the ‘standard model’, the assumptions on which the working semanticists silently agree, Van Benthem opened up a space of issues to be discussed, questions to be asked, routes to be explored, that had been hidden from view by the unreflective endorsement of just one possible, albeit fruitful way of doing semantics. History, by the way, has proven him right on many points: the monolithic approach that dominated formal semantics of natural language in the seventies, and which relied heavily on Montague’s seminal papers, has given way to a multitude of different ways of tackling semantic issues, using different formal techniques. Some limitations, in particular the almost exclusive focus on sentences as the primary units of analysis, have been overcome. In another respect, however, I feel that the message of Van Benthem’s paper has not caught on sufficiently. He urges semanticists to take more interest in the properties of their tools, arguing that such questions are important if we are to come to a real, deep understanding of what semantics is. Such ‘meta-level’ considerations, although certainly less scarce than they used to be, are still not an everyday concern of the working semanticist.
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