Jan 19, 2018 • Philosophy Colloquium: Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini


Fri, 01/19/2018 - 15:00 to 17:00

The Spring 2018 Philosophy Colloquium Series presents Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (University of Arizona).  Title: Meaning, Reference and Truth, from Frege, Russell and Tarski to present-day minimalism in syntax and semantics. 

Friday, Jan 19, 3-5pm, Maloney Seminar Room, Social Sciences 224.


Abstract of “Meaning, reference and truth, from Frege, Russell and Tarski to present-day minimalism in syntax and semantics”

The approach to the semantics of natural languages in generative grammar (GG) is a truth-conditional, compositional semantics. This has been rightly characterized by the late Jerry Fodor as “non-negotiable”. Theories of truth have been variously developed over time and, basically, a Tarskian dis-quotational theory has been imported into GG. But there are some problems.

Consider (1) and (2):

(1) The paint is green, as are the apples and the houses. 

(2)  There are no colorless green ideas. But some triangles are colorless, and there are some green triangles.

Now ask what the contribution of ‘green’ would have to be if (1) and (2) have truth conditions, or even Kaplanian “characters” that map “contexts” to truth conditions. The alleged extension of ‘green’, in this context, would have to include: paint (stuff, as opposed to countable things, but green throughout); some apples (countable things, but green only on the surface); some houses, green in some suitable way; some triangles, but not the abstract ones that actually instantiate theorems. And of course, the shades needn’t be the same in each case. It’s hard to see any way to assign ‘green’ a suitable (mapping from contexts to) extensions. So, rather than say that sentences have truth conditions, we can say (following suggestions Noam Chomsky made back in “Essays on Form and Interpretation”) that the sentences provide sketches of—or if one prefers, scaffoldings for—complete thoughts, but with room for developing the pictures in various ways. Paul Pietroski has tried to spell this out by treating each lexical item as a device for accessing a (copy of a) concept from a memory address that may be shared by a family of concepts. Principles of composition will constrain which lexical choices lead to coherent thoughts. But as (3) suggests, anaphora and ellipsis do not require that the choice of concept be the same each time.

(3)  France is hexagonal, and it is a republic.

What can the referent, the truth-maker, be? Something that is at the same time a geometric shape and a form of government. An apparent absurdity. We will see some of these puzzles and some attempts to solve them.

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