Chris Collins interviews Noam Chomsky about formal semantics

Over on his blog, Chis Collins has posted the text of a conversation he had over email with Noam Chomsky on the topic of formal semantics. While Chomsky has been very open about his views on semantics for a long time, this interview is worth reading for working linguists because Collins frames the conversation around work by linguists—Heim & Kratzer, and Larson & Segal—rather than philosophers—Quine, Austin, Wittgenstein, Frege, et al.

You should read it for yourself, but I’d like to highlight one passage that jumped out at me. Of the current state of the field, Chomsky says:

Work in formal semantics has been some of the most exciting parts of the field in recent years, but it hasn’t been treated with the kind of critical analysis that other parts of syntax (including generative phonology) have been within generative grammar since its origins. Questions about explanatory power, simplicity, learnability, generality, evolvability, and so. More as a descriptive technology. That raises questions.

p 5. (emphasis mine)

It’s true that formal semantics today is a vibrant field. There’s always new analyses, The methods of formal semantics are being applied to new sets of data, and, indeed, it’s virtually impossible to even write a paper on syntax without a bit of formal semantics. Yet it is also true that almost no one has been thinking about the theory underpinning the analytical technology. As a result, I don’t think many working semanticists are even aware that there is such a theory, or if they are aware, they tend to wave their hands, saying “that’s philosophy”. Formal semanticists, it seems, have effectively gaslit themselves.

Chomsky’s framing here is interesting, too. He could be understood as suggesting that formal semantics could engage in theoretical inquiry while maintaining its vibrancy. It’s not clear that this is the case though. Currently, formal semantics bears a striking similarity to the machine-learning/neural-nets style of AI, in that both are being applied to a very wide array of “problems” but a closer look at the respective technologies very likely would cause us to question whether they should be. Obviously, the stakes are different—no one’s ever been injured in a car crash because they used lambdas to analyze a speech act—but the principle is the same.

But I digress. Collins and Chomsky’s conversation is interesting and very accessible to anyone who familiar with Heim & Kratzer-style semantics. It’s well worth a read.

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