Saturday, February 6, 2016

Semantics: a subject in search of an object

Semantics is a subject in search of an object. The objects of study are supposed to be meaning and reference. But these concepts are so elusive so as not to be able to warrant agreement about what they are among those who study them.

Linguists who study semantics break into largely two camps. There are what are called semantic internalists and semantic externalists. Semantic internalists believe the study of meaning involves mainly what is going on inside the heads of a language user. Semantic externalists on the other hand believe meaning has something to do with the relation between words and expressions and objects and states of affairs in the world.

Semanticists also tend to study meaning in a few different ways. Some focus exclusively on the psychological processes or properties that would have to be the case for expressions to be meaningful. Others abstract from natural languages certain sets of principles and generate idealized languages in order to determine properties of meaning. Still others focus on environmental conditions, thinking that meaning has more to do with social or environmental properties than with what is in the head or in the expressions themselves.

In the next post on semantics, I will discuss semantic externalism and the views for and against it.

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