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Semantics

SEMANTICS

The term "semantics" came into general use in many disciplines during the 20th century. The word was first coined and used by Michael Bréal in 1883 to designate the study of the laws that govern changes in meaning. It is popularly used to mean a study designed to improve human relations by an understanding of the ways in which words can mean different things to different persons because of their various emotional and experiential backgrounds. This is called general semantics by the followers of Alfred Korzybski (d. 1950) and pragmatics by Charles Morris.

According to Morris, semantics is one of the three branches of semiotics, the science of signs, which consists of syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. Each of these branches can be theoretical or empirical. Linguistic semantics is descriptive and empirical, attempting to discover from history and from social science the laws that govern changes in the meaning and structure of words. Pure semantics, as a branch of logic, discusses relationships between expressions and the objects they denote with special emphasis on the problems of truth, denotation, and meaning. It is derived from the Vienna Circle and developed in Cambridge, England, thence going to America with Rudolph Carnap and Alfred Tarski, its chief exponents (see logical positivism). Bertrand russell, while one of the originators, has since disavowed its extreme theories. Willard V. O. Quine and P. F. Strawson are interested in the denotation of words, but they have not developed the formalized system of Tarski and Carnap. John G. Kemeny is associated with semantics through his interest in symbolic logic (see logic, symbolic). Linguistic analysis, while related to semantics in its neopositivist assumptions and in its insistence that all problems in philosophy are due to confusion over terms, does not attempt a formalized language but prefers to discuss the meaning of words as used in ordinary language.

This article deals with pure semantics, discussing its origins; its chief concepts, such as antinomy, metalanguage, truth, description, and meaning; and its relation to traditional logic.

Antinomy and Metalanguage. The relationship between language and the objects denoted by it has been studied as far back as the time of Aristotle. As a separate discipline, however, pure semantics can be said to have begun only in the late 19th century when Russell, in a letter to Gottlob Frege, formulated his antinomy of the class of classes. Other antinomies, both linguistic and mathematical, were soon pointed out; these showed weaknesses in a natural language, such as English, when it is used to discuss itself. Accordingly language came to be intensively studied not merely as an instrument for other disciplines, but as itself an object of research. This led to the invention of formalized languages. In order to talk about a natural or object language, a stronger language is needed, a metalanguage, which in turn can be discussed only by a still stronger metalanguage. An adequately formed system of semantics therefore requires a hierarchy of formalized languages. For example, English could be the metalanguage of a simple calculus language, or object language, in which one designates capital letters to represent adjectives and small letters to represent nouns; French could then be the metalanguage of English, or a stronger formalized language could be developed.

When it was seen that metaphysical difficulties arise from the improper use of words or from an inadequate understanding of their use, interest centered in syntax. Logical syntax, as understood by Carnap, abstracts from both the object denoted and the thinking subject and lays down rules for the formation and transformation of linguistic entities. It soon became evident, however, that such matters as truth, denotation, and meaning cannot be discussed in a science of syntax that abstracts from objects.

Truth, Denotation, and Connotation. Tarski, maintaining that truth as such can be considered without involvement in contradictions, based his notion of truth on denotation and satisfaction. A meaning of a word can be either the objects denoted by the word or the notion or idea given by the word. The denotative or extensional meaning of the word "man" is all the men who have ever lived. This is called Bedeutung by Frege, denotation by J. S. Mill, extension in traditional logic, and reference by Max Black. The idea of man is given as rational animal and this is called Sinn (sense) by Frege, connotation by Mill, comprehension in traditional logic, and sense by Black. Current usage distinguishes between "essence" (e.g., rational animal) and "connotation," the essence plus emotions usually associated with the word used to designate it. An extensional definition of the word "horse" would be the listing of all horses ever existing; an intensional definition would be the notion or meaning of the concept of horse, and would be declared nonexistent by neopositivists. Two words can have the same denotation, while the comprehension or intensional meaning may vary. For example, morning star and evening star have the same denotation, Venus, but the connotation varies slightly.

Tarski uses the semantic concepts of denotation, satisfaction, and definition when attempting to formulate the conditions under which a sentence may be said to be true. Thus, "the author of Waverley " denotes Scott and "Scott" satisfies the sentential function "X is the author of Waverley. " To define, for Tarski, means to uniquely determine; thus, the equation 2x = 1 uniquely determines the number 1/2. The word "true" does not apply to such relations, but rather expresses a property of certain expressions, especially of sentences.

Tarski says that he uses "true" in the sense of Aristotelian metaphysics: "To say of what is that it is not or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is or of what is not that it is not is true." In realist terms this would be: "The truth of a sentence consists in its agreement with (or correspondence to) reality." As a condition for the term "true" to be adequate, he adds that all the equivalences of the form, "X is true, if and only if P, " must logically follow and be able to be asserted. When one fills in values for "X " and "P, " one gets a definition of the truth of one sentence; the general definition would then be a union of all partial truths, and would constitute the semantic concept of truth. For example, the sentence, "snow is white" is true if, and only if, snow is white. The first sentence, "snow is white," is the name (or suppositio formalis in traditional logic) of the sentence following the conditional, which asserts a matter of fact (suppositio materialis in traditional logic). Therefore, Tarski's definition of truth is simply this: a sentence is true if it is satisfied by all objects; otherwise it is false.

Analytical Truth. While the semantic concept of truth is based on denotation, satisfaction, and extension, the concept of analytical truth is based on connotation, intension, and meaning. According to Immanuel Kant, a sentence whose predicate is contained in the meaning of the subject, and is noncontradictory, is analytically true. The sentences, "Bachelors are unmarried men," and "Man is a rational animal," are analytically true. Synthetic propositions, also called propositions of fact, are different from this in that they depend on information from the physical world. An example would be: "It is raining." Negation of this sentence, if it is raining, is synthetically false.

A sentence valid in all models (negative, disjunctive, and universal) is analytically true; a sentence valid in no model is analytically false or self-contradictory. By the principle of the excluded middle, a sentence is either analytically true or not analytically true, but not necessarily analytically false. It could be synthetically true or synthetically false, since this is valid in some but not in all models.

There has been much discussion of the concept of analytical truth, especially by Quine. He questions the existence of any analytic sentences and maintains that all sentences are synthetic or that the differences between the two types are minimal. For example, "The earth is a flat surface" could have been considered an analytically true sentence in 1450, while after 1492 it came to be considered as analytically false.

Ambiguity and Description. Two minor problems associated with denotation concern ambiguity and description. An ambiguous term can be clearly true of one object and clearly false of others. Ambiguity causes variation in the truth value of a sentence due to variation in the circumstances of its utterance.

The denotation of a description presents a different problem. According to Russell, descriptions do not function as names nor do they require a name. A description is true only if there is but one denoted object. Descriptions, however, may denote the same object while being factually different. For example, Paul VI is denoted by the two descriptions: "the successor of Pope John XXIII" and "the Archbishop of Milan in 1960." Both of these must be factually ascertained.

Russell maintains that a description such as "Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 32nd President of the United States" is really an abbreviation of: "There was one and only one man who was the thirty-second president of the United States, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was this man." The first part in this sentence would be false if there were no man, or more than one man, satisfying the denotation. Alonso Church, on the other hand, holds that a description is about two concepts, not about the object to which they refer. Thus, in the example above, the two concepts about Pope Paul VI are related to each other rather than to the person of this pope. All are agreed that descriptions can never be analytically true but must be factually verified, and, therefore, can be only synthetically true.

Meaning of Meaning. Another problem discussed by semanticists is that of the meaning of meaning. Carnap seems to hold that language, like mathematics, can be arbitrarily imposed; thus, for him, words have meanings and objects have names (therefore meanings) that are decreed by men. In this view, there is no meaning except by convention. Others have formulated alternative explanations, as summarized in the following list:

  1. Meaning is the object of which the sign is name denotative.
  2. Meaning is an intrinsic property of objects, e.g., Mill's connotation.
  3. Meaning is an ideal object, as for plato, or, as Edmund husserl puts it, an ideal entity manifesting itself in intentional acts owing to a direct eidetic intuition of the essence of the thing.
  4. Meaning is the relation between words, e.g., the lexical meaning obtained by getting a synonym of the word.
  5. Meaning consists in the reaction to the word. William james called it practical consequences of a thing in our future experience. For Ivan Pavlov, meaning is a reflex conditioning of the human organism to the sign or signal. According to C. S. S. Peirce, "to develop its [the word's] meaning, we have simply to determine what habit it produces."
  6. Meaning is the set of operations man can perform with the object, as in P. W. Bridgman's opera-tionalism.
  7. Meaning is the total personal reaction to a thing. This is somewhat like 5 but stresses the personal reaction. It is the theory of the general semanticists, who hold, as does B. L. Whorf, that language molds the worldview of a people rather than vice versa.
  8. A direct relationship exists between thought and object; and an indirect relationship between word and object. Only when a thinker makes use of words do they stand for anything or have meaning. Therefore words have the meanings of the persons who use them. This is the theory of C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards.

Traditional scholastic logic does not discuss meaning as such, but its detailed treatment of first and second intentions is quite relevant to modern discussions of the problem of meaning (see concept; intentionality). In fact, the medieval problem of universals seems once again to be revived by semanticists. Since for the most part they eliminate cognitive elements and favor a behavioristic interpretation of language, they seem to join medieval nominalists in holding that words are mere sounds, or flatus voces (see nominalism). Yet some object to such a characterization, since semanticists do recognize a kind of personal meaning.

Evaluation. Pure semantics is an effort to solve philosophical problems by making language more precise. It is a modern form of nominalism to the extent that it regards language as arbitrary and erects its theory of metalanguage on this base. For most semanticists, names have no intrinsic relation to the objects they denote. While seeing quite correctly that many philosophical difficulties arise over meanings of words, these thinkers universalize the diagnosis and conclude that all philosophical problems can be solved by establishing a formalized language. Problems that cannot be so solved they regard as pseudo-problems.

Despite this narrowness of viewpoint, semanticists have made important contributions in the field of analytical philosophy, and in those areas of philosophical thought related to modern science and its methodology. Their sentential calculi and formalized languages have been particularly valuable in research involving digital computers, and in setting up computations for decision making (see cybernetics).

The problem of truth and that of the relationship existing between words and objects and between objects and thought, however, remain perennial problems in philosophy. The semantic movement, Anglo-Saxon in origin and positivist in inspiration, has attempted to bring scientific accuracy to their solution. Philosophers from other lands and with other orientations question, with good reason, whether rigorous language or vocabulary can of themselves provide lasting solutions to these problems.

See Also: analysis and synthesis; analytical philosophy.

Bibliography: r. carnap, Introduction to Semantics (Cambridge 1942); Meaning and Necessity: A Study in Semantics and Modal Logic (2d ed. Chicago 1956). h. feigl and w. sellars, eds., Readings in Philosophical Analysis (New York 1949). l. linsky, ed., Semantics and the Philosophy of Language (Urbana, Ill. 1952). c. w. morris, Foundations of the Theory of Signs (Chicago 1938); Signs, Language and Behavior (New York 1946). c. k. ogden and i. a. richards, The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism (New York 1949). c. s. s. peirce, "Logic as Semiotic; The Theory of Signs," The Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. j. buchler (New York 1955) 98119; Values in a Universe of Chance, ed. p. p. wiener (Stanford 1958). w. v. o. quine, From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, Mass. 1953); Word and Object (Cambridge 1960). b. russell, An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth (London 1940). a. tarski, Logic, Semantics, Metamathematics: Papers from 1923 to 1938, tr. j. h. woodger (Oxford 1956). s. ullmann, The Principles of Semantics (Glasgow 1951). m. w. hess, "The Semantic Question," New Scholasticism 23 (1949) 186206. j. a. oesterle, "The Problem of Meaning," Thomist 6 (July 1943) 180229; "Another Approach to the Problem of Meaning," ibid. 7 (April 1944) 233263.

[m. gorman]

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