Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Philosophy of language: back to basics

One problem I find myself mulling over a lot is what is the basic meaning bearers or what should be the main focus of attention in philosophy of languge. That isn't quite the best way to phrase it. I think it will get clearer with some examples.

It seems like there are three main candidates for what is the basic bearer of meaning which are related: sentences as types, utterances, and intentions, communicative or otherwise. Sentences are basic in the Kaplan tradition of semantics. Utterances are basic in the Perry tradition of pragmatics. Intentions are basic in the neo-Gricean tradition of pragmatics. Looking at this, one might be inclined to say that sentences serve for semantics and attempt to separate out the remaining candidates for pragmatics. This strikes me as misguided but I'm not sure why at the moment.

There is a way in which all three are related. Sentences are types which are token in utterances. A near equivalence between utterances and sentences can be had by indexing sentences to agents, times, and locations (and worlds maybe) such that that sentence is uttered by the agent at the time at the location in the world. Fair enough. There is some underdetermination since there are many ways to utter a sentence, quickly, slowly, with a drawal, with an English accent, etc. Indexing won't fix that unless it includes a wave form index, but that is just including an utterance type in the index. Intentions can be coupled with utterances since utterances are made by agents with certain intentions, as utterances are actions which are intentional. What is the connection between sentences and intentions? I'm not sure if there is a direct link between the two.

What recommends one over the others? Sentences have the benefit of easily being incorporated into a logic or formal semantics, a la Kaplan and Montague. This is Kaplan's reason for using them, as, to use his great phrase, semantics depends on the "verities of meaning, not the vagaries of action." Why use utterances then? To facilitate pragmatic theory. Perry opts for utterances over intentions and sentences since utterances are physical events with times and locations. This allows them to be carriers of information, a fact he exploits in his more general theory of information and situation semantics. Utterancess are physical events which can carry information about the world given constraints to which interpreters are attuned and beliefs they have. This is used in his project of providing a naturalized basis for information. Intentions are basic if one is inclined to follow the Gricean line, like Sperber, Wilson, and Neale. The Gricean line is that saying or meaning is a form of intention recognition. Meaning is conveyed just in case the speaker's communicatve intention is picked up on by the interpreter. What do utterances and sentences do on this picture? Utterances provide a nuanced way for interpreters to get at the communicative intention; sentences are just the types involved in said utterances, I guess. This can be incorporated into a sophisticated theory of pragmatics, like Grice's own, which is a point in its favor although not clearly better than utterances as many philosophers and linguists working in pragmatics take utterances as basic.

Clearly, taking one as basic precludes taking the other two as basic. At this point I just wanted to lay out something I see as foundational issue in philosophy of language that I don't know of a solid answer to. There are a couple of other options that I didn't include in my discussion that might be worth including in the future: propositions and inference. As far as meaning bearers go, inference is an option and propositions are not. Propositions are candidates for meanings, not bearers of them I think. The question as to which of sentences, utterances, and intentions are basic can still arise for inference. Additionally, I see inference as competing mainly with reference for foundational status, so I didn't include it here.

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