On the general character of semantic theory (Part a)

(AKA Katz’s Semantic Theory (Part IIIa). This post discusses chapter 2 of Jerrold Katz’s 1972 opus. For my discussion of chapter 1, go here.)

Having delineated in chapter 1 which questions a semantic theory ought to answer, Katz goes on in chapter 2 to sketch the sort of answer that a such a theory would give. He starts at a very high level, discussing the very notion of natural language and ends up with some of the formal details of the theory that he aims to develop.

Katz begins by reminding the reader that the questions of meaning—questions 1–15 below—are absolute questions. That is, they aren’t meant to be relativized to any particular language.

  1. What are synonymy and paraphrase?
  2. What are semantic similarity and semantic difference?
  3. What is antynomy?
  4. What is superordination?
  5. What are meaningfulness and semantic anomaly?
  6. What is semantic ambiguity?
  7. What is semantic redundancy?
  8. What is semantic truth (analyticity, metalinguistic truth, etc.)?
  9. What is semantic falsehood (contradiction, metalinguistic falsehood, etc.)?
  10. What is semantically undetermined truth or falsehood (e.g., syntheticity)?
  11. What is inconsistency?
  12. What is entailment?
  13. What is presupposition?
  14. What is a possible answer to a question?
  15. What is a self-answered question?

So, asking What is semantic truth in English? is kind of like asking What is a hiccup to a Canadian?. This, Katz acknowledges, makes a strong empirical claim, namely, that every natural language should exhibit the properties whose definitions are requested by questions 1–15.

As a syntactician, this claim made me think about what notions I would include the field of syntax as universal in this sense. Notions like sentence or phrase would certainly be there, and category would likely be there. Would subject, predicate, object, and the like be there? Would modification, or transformation? How about interrogative, declarative, imperative, etc? Notions like word/morpheme, or linear precedence, certainly were included in early versions of syntax, but more recently they tend to either be banished from the theory or dissolved into other notions.

I know of very few syntactitians who ask these questions. Perhaps this is because syntax has decidedly moved beyond the early stage in which Katz found semantics in 1972, but it still behooves us to keep those questions in mind, if only for the purposes of introducing syntax to students. Furthermore, perhaps if we keep these questions in mind, they can serve as a guide for research. Before embarking to answer a research question, the researcher would try to trace that question back to one of the basic questions to judge its likely fruitfulness. I would be curious to see how the papers in, say, LI would fare under such an analysis. But I digress.

Katz continues, asserting that a theory of linguistic meaning must be embedded in a larger theory of natural language, and in order to develop such a theory we must have some sense of what sort of thing a natural language might be. It is this question that occupies the first part of this chapter

1. Theories about the objective reality of language

The first thing Katz does here is distinguish between the two main competing conceptions of language (at least the main conceptions of his day): the traditional rationalist conception of language as “the internalized rules of grammar that constitute the fluency of its native speakers”, and the empiricist conception of language as “a vast stock of sound chunks classifiable into various phonological and syntactic categories” (p12). He opts for rationalism, citing the now familiar arguments against the empiricist stance. First off, we can’t identify a language L with the set S of all actual utterances of L because any competent speaker of L can easily construct an expression that lies outside of S. This is because although practical factors force every expression of a language to be of finite length, there is no theoretical limit to the length of an expression; no matter the length of an expression, there is always a grammatical way of lengthening it.

One could, Katz continues, expand S to be the set of all expressions that a speaker of L could utter without eliciting an odd response from a hearer. However, this amounts to defining L in terms of dispositions of a speech community, namely the dispositions to accept or reject strings of L. In practical reality, though, these dispositions can be wildly inconsistent depending on a variety of psychological and external factors, so if we want a consistent definition we need to clean up our notion of dispositions. Katz does so by “incorporating recursive mechanisms of sentence generation” (p15), or, as they’re more commonly referred to, generative grammars. And once we incorporate generative grammars, we have a rationalist conception of natural language.

Thus far, there’s nothing too surprising. Katz gives us a fairly standard argument in favour of the rationalist conception of language. But this is where Katz’s discussion gets a little strange; this is where he reveals his realist (in the philosophical sense) view of language. It is a mistake, he argues, to identify, say, English with the actual internalized rules in English-speakers’ brains. This would be like “identifying arithmetic with the concrete realizations of the mathematical rules in the heads of those who can compute using positive real numbers” (p16). As evidence for this claim, Katz cites “dead languages” like Sanskrit, which seems to exist (we can make true or false assertions of it) even though its rules are not actualized in any human’s brain the way that Hindi-Urdu’s rules are. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly here, Katz is arguing that languages are abstract entities, like platonic forms. In his own words: “A language is not itself subject to the fate of the mortals who speak it. It is some sort of abstract entity, whatever it is that this means.” (p16)

Katz further defends this view by identifying it with the standard scientific practice of idealization. So a natural languages like, say, Punjabi and a biological species like homo sapiens is an idealization in that they can’t be defined in terms of concrete examples. Similarly the notions of ideal gases, perfect vacuums, and massless strings are the idealizations of physics. He also cites Chomsky’s discussion in Aspects of the “ideal speaker-listener” and Rudolph Carnap who makes a similar observation, that one cannot directly investigate language but must do so by comparison to a constructed language.

Katz’s proposal and argument that languages are abstract entities strikes me as interesting but a bit confused. Katz’s argument from dead languages is compelling, and could perhaps be made even stronger. Consider for instance, reconstructed languages such as Proto Indo-European or Proto Algonquian. At best we know a scant few details about these languages, but we can say with some certainty that they were each spoken by some speech community. Do they exist in the same sense as Sanskrit does? I think the answer has to be yes, as the only difference between a reconstructed language and a dead language seems to be a written record of that language, and that is clearly not the difference between a language and a non-language.

The argument based on idealization, though. seems to be slightly confused. The comparison of a language with a species does seem to be apt, and might point towards his conclusion, but the comparison to ideal gases etc. I think suggests a different notion of idealization, the one that I’ve always taken Chomsky to be using. Under this sense, the idealized objects that scientists employ are not hypothesized to be real, but rather to be useful. I don’t believe even the most realist of scientists believes in the existence of frictionless planes. Scientists use these idealizations to reveal real, but non-apparent aspects of the world. In discussing the ideal speaker-listener, Chomsky was not suggesting that such a person exists, just that we ought to use this idealized person to help reveal a real aspect of the world, namely, the human language faculty.

2. Effability

In the next section Katz espouses what he calls the principle of effability, which he attributes to a number of earlier philosophers (Frege, Searle, and Tarski). The essence of the principle is roughly that if a proposition or thought is expressible in any language, it is expressible in every language. He spends a good chunk of text defending and sharpening his principle, but I’ll set that discussion aside here, and focus on why he proposes this principle. According to Katz, “effability alone offers a satisfactory basis for drawing the distinction between natural languages, on the one hand, and systems of animal communication and artificial languages, on the other” (p22). Despite this bold seeming claim, Katz is rather hesitant regarding his principle. He admits that it is rather inchoate and probably not yet up to any empirical task. But only part of his claim is about the viability of effability, the other claim is that no other property of natural language can distinguish it from other similar systems.

In particular, Katz takes aim at the properties that Chomsky tends to highlight as distinguishing factors for natural language: creativity, stimulus freedom, and appropriateness. Taking these one-by-one, he argues that none of them is unique to natural language. First, he considers creativity which he takes to be the ability of a speaker-listener to produce and understand indefinitely many sentences. This, Katz argues is a property of (a) any artificial language with recursive rules, and (b) certain animal communication systems, specifically bee communication. Next, Katz takes on stimulus freedom, which he argues means freedom from external stimuli, asserting that “[i]t cannot mean freedom from the control of internal stimuli as well.”1 This being the case, says Katz, stimulus freedom doesn’t make sense as a distinction. Also, he asserts that some animal behaviour displays such stimulus freedom. Finally, Katz argues that appropriateness is not part of linguistic competence—that it is extragrammatical, and also that some animal behaviour displays this property.

I take some issue with Katz’s critiques of each of the distinguishing properties individually, but I’ll set that aside for now to highlight a broader issue. Even if we take Katz’s critiques at face value, they still don’t refute Chomsky’s claim, because Chomsky’s Cain isn’t that each of the three properties distinguishes natural language, but that the conjunction of the three is what distinguishes natural language. That is, natural language is distinct from animal communication and artificial language in that it is creative, stimulus-free, and appropriate. So, for instance, even if a bee can produce novel dances, it does so in response to a stimulus. Artificial language might be creative, but it makes little sense to talk about stimulus freedom or appropriateness with respect to them. So Katz’s critiques don’t really have that much force.

At any rate, the principle of effability, while an interesting notion, doesn’t seem to be too crucial for Katz’s theory. The index of the book lists only one reference to effability outside this section. So, on to the next.

3. Competence and Performance

In the final table-setting section of this chapter, Katz takes up and defends Chomsky’s competence/performance distinction. His discussion, though, differs from most that I’ve encountered in that he uses a debate between Chomsky and Gilbert Harman, one of Chomsky and Katz’s empiricist contemporaries. Katz first clears a significant portion of underbrush in this debate in order to get to what he takes to be the crux of the issue: the proposal that linguistic competence consists in the unconscious knowledge of general principles. He summarizes Harman’s issue, which seems to revolve around the notion of grammatical transformations, as follows.

[G]iven that we can say that speakers of a language know that certain sentences are ungrammatical, certain ones ambiguous, certain ones related in certain ways to others, and so on, what licenses us to go further and say that speakers know (tacitly) the linguistic principles whose formalization in the grammar explain the noted ungrammaticality, ambiguity, sentential relations and the like?


This challenge, Katz seems to argue, is not based on the empiricist/rationalist debate in epistemology, but rather on the realist/fictionalist argument in the philosophy of science.2 Harman is saying that a transformational grammar is maybe a good model of a speaker-listener of a given language, but it’s just that, a model. Katz responds, with the help of a quote from his erstwhile co-author, Jerry Fodor, that the only sensible conclusion to be drawn from the empirical accuracy of a scientific theory is that the theory is a true description of reality, at least insofar as it is empirically accurate. There is, of course much more to say about this, but I’ll leave it there.

Thus, Katz sets up his conception of language in order to be able to sketch a theory of semantics within a theory of language. In my next post I will take up the details of that sketch.

  1. ^ Katz cites Cartesian Linguistics for Chomsky’s distinguishing factors, and it’s likely that CL doesn’t discuss stimulus-freedom too extensively. In more recent discussion, though, Chomsky does include internal stimuli in the property of stimulus freedom, so, it’s not clear that Katz’s critique here still holds.
  2. ^ I suspect that there is no strong demarcation between epistemology and philosophy of science, but I can’t say with any confidence one way or the other.