The Poverty of Referentialist Semantics

(What follows is a bit of a rant. I hope it holds together a bit. If you make it past the inflammatory title, let me know what you think.)

When Gregor Mendel first discovered his Laws of Inheritance, it was a great revelation. To be sure, humanity has perhaps always known that many of a person’s (or plant’s, animal’s, bacterium’s, etc) traits are inherited from their parents, but Mendel was able to give that knowledge a quantitative expression. Of course, this was just the beginning of the modern study of genetics, as scientist asked the next obvious question: How are traits inherited? This question persisted for the better part of a century until a team of scientists showed experimentally, that inheritance proceeds via DNA. Again, this raised a question that has spurred research to this day: How does DNA encode physical traits? But why am I writing about genetics in a post about semantics? Well, to make a point of contrast with the theory that has dominated the field of linguistic semantics for the past few decades: Formal Semantics.

As in the case of inheritance, we’ve always know that words, phrases, and sentences have meanings, but we’ve had a tougher time understanding this fact. In the late 19th and early 20th century philosophers, psychologists and linguists seemed to settle on a way of understanding linguistic meaning: linguistic expression are meaningful by virtue of the fact that they refer to objects in the world. So, “dog” has a meaning for modern English speakers because it refers to dogs. This principle has led the modern field of semantics, although not in the same way as the discoveries of genetics led that field. If semanticists had proceeded as the geneticists had, they would have immediately asked the obvious question: How do linguistic expressions refer to objects in the world? Instead of pursuing this question, semanticists seem to have banished it and, in fact, virtually any questions about the reference relation, and have done so, I believe, to the detriment of the field.

At first blush, it might seem that semanticists should be forgiven for not centring this question in their inquiry. Curiosity about genetic inheritance, to continue my comparison, is quite natural, likely because we can observe its facts objectively. Certainly, it’s a cliché that no one likes to admit that they’re like their parents. There is very little resistance, on the other hand, to seeing such a similarity in other people. The facts of inheritance are unavoidable, but they are not coupled with anything approaching intuition about them. In fact, many of the facts are fundamentally unintuitive: How can a trait skip a generation? Why does male pattern baldness come from the mother’s side? How can a long line of brown-eyed people produce a blue-eyed child? This dearth of intuition about an abundance of evidence means that no one objects to followup questions to any scientific advance in the field. In fact, the right kind of follow-up questions are welcomed.

On the other hand, linguistics, especially generative linguistics, faces the opposite situation. In many ways, the object of generative inquiry is our intuitive knowledge about our own language. It should be obvious here that the average person’s intuitions about language vastly outweigh the objective facts about language.* Our intuitions about language are so close to our core, that it is very uncomfortable for us to entertain questions about it. We like to think that we know our own minds, but a question like what is language?—properly pursued—highlights just how little we understand that mind. This is not to say it’s an unanswerable or ill-formed question; it’s not a species of zen kōan. Language exists and we can distinguish it from other things, so, unlike the sound of one hand clapping, it has a nature that we can perhaps gain some understanding of. In fact, the field of generative syntax shows us that language is amenable to rational inquiry, provided researchers are open to follow-up questions: Chomsky’s initial answer to the question was that language is a computational procedure that generates an infinite array of meaningful expressions, which raised the obvious question: What sort of computational procedure? In many ways this is the driving question of generative syntactic theory, but it has also raised a number of additional questions, some of which are still open.

Just as what is language? is a difficult question, so are what is meaning? and how do words refer? So semanticists can be forgiven for balking at them initially. But, again, this is not to say that these are unanswerable questions in principle. What’s more, I don’t think semanticists even attempt to argue that the questions are too hard. On the contrary, the answer to the questions are so obvious that they don’t warrant a response. Are they right? Is it a boring, obvious question? I don’t think so. I think it is an interesting question whose surface simplicity masks a universe of complexity. In fact, I can demonstrate that complexity with some seemingly simple examples.

Before I demonstrate the complexity of reference in language, let’s look at some simple cases of reference to get a sense of what sort of relation it is. Consider for instance, longitude and latitude. The string 53° 20′ 57.6″ N, 6° 15′ 39.87″ W refers to a particular location on earth. Specifically it refers to the location of the Dublin General Post Office. That sequence of symbols is not intrinsically linked to that spot on earth; it is linked by the convention of longitude and latitude, which is to say it is linked arbitrarily. Despite its arbitrary nature, though, the link is objective; it doesn’t matter who is reading it, it still refers to that particular location. Similar remarks apply to variable assignment in computer programs, which are arbitrarily linked to a location in a computer’s RAM, or numerals like 4 or IV, which are arbitrarily linked to a particular number (assuming numbers have objective reality). These seem to suggest the following definition of the reference relation.

(R) reference is the arbitrary and objective mapping between symbols and objects or sets of objects.

For a moment, let’s set aside two types of expressions: subjective expressions like my favourite book, or next door, and proper names like The Dublin General Post Office, or Edward Snowden. For the purposes of this post, I will grant that the question of how the latter refer is already solved, and the question of how the former refer is too difficult to answer at this point. Even if we restrict ourselves to common nouns that ostensibly refer to physical objects, we run into interesting problems.

Consider the word “chair”. English speakers are very good at correctly identifying certain masses of matter as chairs, and identifying others as not chairs. This seems like a textbook case of reference, but how are we able to do it?

A chair

Not a chair

In order for reference to obtain here, there must be some intrinsic property (or constellation of properties) that marks the thing on the left as a chair and is lacking in the thing on the right. Let’s skip some pointless speculation and settle on shape as the determining factor. That is, chairs are chairs by virtue of their shape. And let’s grant that that chair-shape can be codified in such a way as to allow reference to obtain. That would be great, except that it still doesn’t fully capture the meaning of “chair”.

Suppose, for instance, a sculptor creates an object that looks exactly like a chair, and an art gallery buys it to display as part of its collection. Is that object a chair? No, it’s a sculpture. Why? Because it no longer serves the function of a chair. So the objective shape of an artifact is not sufficient to determine it’s chair-ness; we need to say something about its function, and function, I would argue, is subjective.

Or consider the following narrative:

Sadie has just moved into her first apartment in a major Western city and she needs to furnish it. Being less than wealthy she opts to buy furniture from Ikea. She goes online and orders her Ikea furniture. The next day three flat-pack boxes arrive at her door: One contains a bookshelf, one contains a bed, and the other contains a chair.

In what sense does that box contain a chair? It contains prefabricated parts which can be assembled to form a chair. Neither the box, nor its contents are chair-shaped, yet we’re happy to call the contents a chair. What if Sadie were a skilled woodworker and wanted to build her own furniture from, say, several 2-by-4s. Would we call those uncrafted 2-by-4s a chair? I don’t think so. Let’s continue the narrative.

Sadie assembles her furniture and other furniture and enjoys it for a year, at which point her landlord decides to evict her in order to double the rent. Sadie finds another apartment and pack up her belongings. In order to facilitate the move she disassembles her furniture and puts them the the trunks of the cars of her various helpful siblings. Her bookcase goes with Rose, her bed with Declan, and her chair with Violet.

Again, we refer to a bundle of chair parts as a chair. What if Sadie had taken out her anger at being evicted by her greedy landlord on the chair, hacking it to pieces with an axe? Would the resulting pile of rubble be a chair? Certainly not.

What does this tell us about how the word “chair” is linked to the object that I’m sitting on as I write this? That link cannot be reference as defined above in (R), because it’s not purely objective. The chair-ness of an object depends not only on its objective form, but also on its subjective function. And this problem will crop up with any artifact-word (e.g., “table”, “book”, “toque”). If we were to shift our domain away from artifact-words, no doubt we’d find more words that don’t refer in the sense of (R). Maybe we’d find real honest-to-goodness referring words, but we’d still be left with a language that contains a sizable chunk of non-referential expressions. Worse still, modern formal semanticists have expanded the universe of “real objects” to which expressions can refer to include situations, events, degrees, and so on. What’s the objective nature of an event? or a situation? or a degree? No idea, but I know them when I see them.

“So what?”you might say. “Formal semantics works. Just look at all of the papers published, problems raised and solved, linguistic phenomena described.Who cares if we don’t know how reference works?” Well, if semantics is the study of meaning, and meaning is reference, then how can there be any measure of the success of semantics that isn’t a measure of it understanding of what reference is?

Again, consider a comparison with genetics. What if, instead of asking follow-ups to Mendel’s laws, geneticists had merely developed the laws to greater precision? Our current understanding of genetics would be wildly impoverished. We certainly would not have all of the advances that currently characterize genetic science. Quite obviously genetics is much the richer for asking those follow-up questions.

No doubt semantics would be much richer if it allowed follow-up questions.


* It is precisely this situation that makes it so difficult to communicate the aims of generative linguistics, and why the main type of linguistics that gains any sort of traction in the mainstream press is the type that looks at other people’s language. Consider the moral panic about the speech patterns of young women that surfaces every so often, the NY Time Bestseller Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch, which looks at the linguistic innovation on the internet, or even the current discussion about the origins of Toronto slang. To paraphrase Mark Twain, nothing so needs research and discussion as other people’s language.

I’m being generous here. In fact, most paradoxes of reference are about proper names (See, Katz, J. J. (1986). Why intensionalists ought not be Fregeans. Truth and interpretation, 59-91.)

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