is an expressivist semantics for natural language viable?

(Apologies in advance for the techy nature of this post. The subject itself is pretty techy.)

Various philosophers have argued for a semantics for natural language that makes no use of the notions of truth and reference in its metalanguage—that is to say, a non-representational semantics. There are many ways in which one might attempt to develop such a semantics. One way is expressivism. While there is much that is distinctive about expressivism as an approach to the semantics of natural language, the most central idea is utterances of “complete” pieces of syntax do not assert propositions with cognitive (truth-conditional) content, but rather function to express attitudes of approval (something like full credence) or disapproval (something like zero credence) by the speaker.

There are many questions about how to formalize this central idea. One approach is to rewrite a standard truth-conditional semantics (e.g., the kind you’ll find in Heim and Kratzer’s Semantics in Generative Grammar) with “approval” standing in for “truth” and “disapproval” standing in for “false” in the metalanguage.


That is to say, we retain the standard lambda calculus, but now understand it as a formal representation of a calculus of attitudes, where the semantic value computed by our semantics for some tokening of some sentence is either approval or disapproval of the claim expressed by that sentence in the relevant utterance[*]. The semantic value of a proper name is a mental state that saturates a “functional” mental state, yielding approval or disapproval of some claim as an output. On this approach, it is natural to see the lexical entry for an intransitive verb like “barks” as being something like this:

(BARKS) ||barks||u,s,XP,c = λx ∈ DR . Appr[barks(x)] if s approves of the claim that x barks, Disappr[barks(x)] otherwise

Understand DR to be the set of semantic values of referential expressions; ‘Appr[barks(x)]’ to be a metalanguage expression such that for all x, Appr[barks(x)] iff s approves of the claim that x barks; and ‘Disappr[barks(x)]’ to be a metalanguage expression such that for all x, Disappr[barks(x)] iff s disapproves of the claim that x barks. Read the lexical entry, then, as follows: the semantic value of ‘barks’ in an utterance u by speaker s of some larger piece of syntax XP in context c is the function taking every element x of DR to Appr[barks(x)] if s approves of the claim that x barks, Disappr[barks(x)] otherwise.

Here is a major worry for this approach. Take a speaker A who disapproves of the claim that George Bush barks. Using this lexical entry for ‘barks’ to compute the semantic value of ‘George Bush barks’ (for all utterances u by A in all contexts c) yields the following result: Disappr[George Bush barks]. This seems wrong; Disappr[George Bush barks] seems as if it should be the result of computing the semantic value of ‘George Bush doesn’t bark’, not of ‘George Bush barks’. The expressivist who chooses (BARKS) as his lexical entry for ‘barks’ is thus forced to bite a pretty big bullet; intuitively speaking, the results of his computations for any of A’s utterances of ‘George Bush barks’ and ‘George Bush doesn’t bark’ will have to be identical.

Perhaps the following pragmatic response can help. It is presupposed by default that in uttering some sentence φ, a speaker means to express approval of the claim expressed by φ. The presupposition is, however, cancelable; usually one can cancel it merely by employing the negation operator. Roughly, the negation operator has a metalinguistic function; it indicates to a speaker’s interlocutors that he is in fact to be interpreted as disapproving of the claim expressed by the attached sentence.

This seems to amount to the suggestion that the role of negation is to cancel a pragmatic presupposition to the effect that in uttering some sentence φ, a speaker means to express approval of the claim expressed by φ. By asserting φ’s negation, a speaker makes it presupposed that she disapproves of the claim expressed by φ. That is to say, negation is a signal to one’s interlocutors, used by a speaker to make sure that she will be understood as she intends to be understood.

Consider, however, what happens when the speaker A attempts to reflect on the claims she endorses. Even in a private moment of reflection, A will refuse her assent to the sentence ‘George Bush barks’. But the suggested pragmatic story seems to predict that she will not so refuse. A perceives no risk that she will be misunderstood, since there is no audience to misunderstand her. The meaning of the sentence is, more or less, transparent to her, and yet she still refuses to assent to it. But why should this be? If the meaning of the sentence is more or less transparent to A, and the semantic value of the sentence is in fact the expression of disapproval by A of the claim that George Bush barks, these facts alone should be sufficient to defeat the relevant presupposition. Why then would A rationally refuse her assent to the sentence ‘George Bush barks’ in such a situation?

The following reply is possible. There is a pragmatic rule of assent, such that one may only assent to a sentence when one approves of the claim expressed by an utterance of that sentence. In all other cases—including cases that do not involve any conversational interlocutors—assent is inappropriate.

As far as I can tell, there is simply no motivation for positing such a pragmatic rule of assent. What reason could we have for supposing that there in fact is such a rule governing the linguistic behavior of ordinary English speakers? Generally, it is plausible to assume the existence of such rules concerning linguistic behavior only when it is possible to tell a story about why the rule is important for promoting efficient and felicitous communication between individuals. For the reasons articulated in the previous paragraph, it is not clear why a rule governing the linguistic behavior of a single, non-conversant individual in such a way would be important in this way, since there appears to be no risk of misinterpretation in such cases. This seems to follow from the following (seemingly plausible) general methodological principle of pragmatics: given some linguistic context c such that there is no reasonable basis for a speaker A to suppose that there is some risk that some linguistic performance P of hers will be misinterpreted, there is no pragmatic rule φ such that φ forbids A’s performance of P in c.

All this said, I think it’s safe to assume that (BARKS) is the wrong lexical entry for ‘barks.’ The broader point seems to be that there’s no easy way to directly adapt a standard truth-conditional semantics (that of Heim and Kratzer) to the expressivist project.

What would the right lexical entry for ‘barks’ look like? There are a few options, but all of them have some drawbacks. (Perhaps the worst drawback is that, in order to be even prima facie viable, a viable expressivist semantics for natural language will require us to rebuild even the most basic parts of our semantics from the ground up.) Depending on the response this post receives, I may have some more to say about those options in a later post.

[*] The notion of a claim is problematic for the expressivist. I use it here only for expository ease. You’ll have to trust me that there are ways of cashing out the expressivist project that don’t depend on the notion.

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7 Responses to is an expressivist semantics for natural language viable?

  1. Dustin says:

    Hi Nate,

    Just a clarification question. You write:

    “Take a speaker A who disapproves of the claim that George Bush barks. Using this lexical entry for ‘barks’ to compute the semantic value of ‘George Bush barks’ (for all utterances u by A in all contexts c) yields the following result: Disappr[George Bush barks]”

    Why should that be? It seems that you are taking the attitude that the speaker in fact has to be relevant to the semantic value of his utterance. Wouldn’t this be like taking, in truth conditional semantics, the fact that some condition C in fact obtains to be relevant to whether C is the semantic value of some utterance?

    This really isn’t meant to be an objection; I just don’t understand. Despite what Ludlow’s footnote may say, I’ve never studied expressivist semantics.

  2. Ivan says:

    Hi Dustin,

    I am not sure that is what he is doing, or perhaps I do not fully understand your question. I agree we would not want to take the fact that some condition C obtains to be relevant to whether C is the semantic value of some utterance U, for C might be the semantic value of U and not obtain. But once we have already established, or proposed, that C is the semantic value of U, then it becomes relevant whether C obtains in a context in which U. So in the example above: that the speaker disapproves of her utterance of ‘George Bush barks’ is relevant insofar as we are assuming (BARKS) as the lexical entry for ‘barks’, i.e. insofar as it has already been established, or proposed, that the semantic value for ‘barks’ is as (BARKS) says it is.

  3. Dustin says:

    Hi Ivan,

    You write: “But once we have already established, or proposed, that C is the semantic value of U, then it becomes relevant whether C obtains in a context in which U.”

    Relevant to what?

  4. edu says:

    Well,

    I am confused. I don’t know if I don’t understand, or if there is no problem here at all. It seems to me as if Nate is trying to pull out another paradox for self-referentiality. He starts by saying that for expressivist semantics:

    ” the most central idea is utterances of “complete” pieces of syntax do not assert propositions with cognitive (truth-conditional) content, but rather function to express attitudes of approval (something like full credence) or disapproval (something like zero credence) by the speaker.”

    I presuppose that, even though it is not truth-theoretic, this emotional-theoretic account still distinguishes between linguistic objects like ‘utterances of ‘complete’ pieces of syntax’, and emotional entities. Just like truth theoretic semantics presupposes a distinction between sentences and their truth value. Thus, to say that the meaning of an utterance is analyzed in terms of emotional states of approval or disapproval, is different from approving or disapproving an utterance. After all, Gibbard and Ludlow are doing something different to what football fans do at the big house.

    Now, let’s go to the alleged problem. A major worry for expressivism, says Nate, is this:

    “take a speaker A who disapproves of the claim that George Bush barks.”

    Stop right there. Expressivism is a theory of the semantics of full expressions. What is is that it is supposed to account for in this Bush case? Is it the claim following the ‘that’ clause? Is it ‘George Bush barks’? or is it the emotional state of A who eagerly (and wrongly) disapproves that Bush barks? I think it is the former. If such is the case then…

    ” Using this lexical entry for ‘barks’ to compute the semantic value of ‘George Bush barks’ (for all utterances u by A in all contexts c) yields the following result: Disappr[George Bush barks]. ”

    NO! NO! that’s not what the theory says. If the “complete piece of syntax” to be analyzed is ‘George Bush Barks” then how in the world did you get the ‘Disappr’ in? Oh, I see, you get it from the speakers disapproval: but that’s not something that expressivist semantics worries about. It worries about the content of the claims, not about emotions. A theory OF meaning that says we express internal states is not a theory OF internal states. So, when you say:

    “This seems wrong; Disappr[George Bush barks] seems as if it should be the result of computing the semantic value of ‘George Bush doesn’t bark’, not of ‘George Bush barks’.”

    You are totally right. But A still disapproves!!! Well yeah, so what? To see why this is not something special about expressivist semantics, think of Davidson Falsifying (i.e., the truth-theoretic counterpart of Disapproving) the claim that George Bush barks. What does that mean for Davidson’s theory? Is the result ‘Geroge bush barks’ is not true iff George bush does not bark? but isn’t the cosequent rather the analysis of ‘George bush does not bark’ bu not of ‘george bush barks’? But then, is Davidson forced to admit that the analysis of ‘george bush barks’ is the same as that of ‘george bush doesn’t bark’?

    I think this is just a big confussion. At the most, it points out that curious problems come out when we allow self-reference, as when Nate puts the object language disapproval into the metalanguage lexicon as doying the same as the meta-term of ‘disapproves’. If this is true, then expressivist semantics might just be liable to the same problems as truth-theoretic semantics. I don’t know if this is good news for expressivists or bad news for anyone who cares to offer a theory of meaning!

    :-P

  5. Jon S. says:

    So Nate, what are your post-PLuddy-discussion thoughts on this? Still think the pragmatic rule is defensible only for truth-conditional semantics? I really think this should be more of a complaint about claiming that the semantic values of sentences are ILFs than a complaint about having attitudes instead of truth values at the tops of ILFs. (But, admittedly, I don’t know enough about philosophy of language to decide whether a complaint about the semantic values of sentences being ILFs is more or less interesting.)

    Best,
    j

    PS 1 out of 1 Jon wants you to respond to the comments on your earlier post.

  6. nate charlow says:

    My thoughts are roughly unchanged. The central point is this:

    Given some linguistic context c such that there is no reasonable basis for a speaker A to suppose that there is some risk that some linguistic performance P of hers will be misinterpreted, there is no pragmatic rule φ such that φ forbids A’s performance of P in c.

    This point is self-evidently insensitive to whether you take the semantic values of sentences to be ILFs headed by an attitude or attitudes toward claims or non-directed attitudes.

  7. nate charlow says:

    Edu, I’m mostly sympathetic to your comments and the reasons you have for rejecting the semantic proposal on the table. The post was a criticism of an actual expressivist proposal developed by Ludlow, one where the semantic value of ‘barks’ is:

    λx ∈ DR . Appr[barks(x)] if s approves of the claim that x barks, Disappr[barks(x)] otherwise

    On this proposal, the semantic value of a sentence is a function of the speaker’s attitude toward the claim (normally?) expressed by the sentence. Since by stipulation the speaker’s attitude toward the claim expressed by ‘George Bush barks’ is disapproval, the semantic value computed for ‘George Bush barks’ is Disappr[barks(GWB)].

    You’ve probably hit on a few more reasons about why this is such a disagreeable proposal. I take no issue with them.

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