Sunday, 16 September 2012

Soames on the Abstract View

The view of the nature of language that I've written a few posts about in the previous couple of months (these are: "There's Glory for You!", "Is There a Philosophical Problem of Reference?", "Language Relativity (Or: Does a Cow Eat Without a Knife?)" and "Meaning, Use and Modality: M-Facts and U-Facts") is a topic I've been thinking about for a very long time---since I first read Quine's From a Logical Point of View, Word & Object and Philosophy of Logic, around 1988. This is the Abstract View: the view that languages are abstracta whose syntactic, semantic, etc., properties are essential, and have nothing to do with speakers, their behaviour, their mental states, etc. In particular, strings can have any meaning one likes, if one is free to vary the language as much as one pleases.

I'm not sure where I read this view first though, as it certainly has been defended by several authors before (see Soames below). And I hadn't appreciated how much in tension it is with other widely held views in foundations of semantics, and of linguistics more generally, until I read Putnam 1985, "A Comparison of Something with Something Else" (which I didn't until sometime after 2000 or so: Putnam's article, as well as being quite funny, makes clear what his objections to Tarski are). In all of these cases, the Abstract View emerges as a response to three major criticisms of Tarski’s semantic conception of truth: these are
(i) the “modal objection” (which has a clear formulation in Putnam 1985);
(ii) the “use objection” (which also has a clear formulation in Putnam 1985);
(iii) the “non-explanatory list” objection (Field 1972, "Tarski's Theory of Truth").
A recent discussion of some of these objections appears in a 2008 article, "Truth, Meaning and Translation" (in D. Patterson (ed.) 2008, New Essays on Tarski and Philosophy, OUP), by Panu Raatikainen, who points out that Putnam also attributes something like the Abstract View to Rudolf Carnap. (Whether Tarski himself held the view or something like it is an interesting matter of historical exegesis.)

The earliest formulation I know of the Abstract View appears in Scott Soames’ 1984 article, “What is a Theory of Truth?” (J. Phil). As Soames notes, this view was suggested to him by reading David Lewis 1975, "Languages and Language".
Here is Scott Soames:

We have, then, two major objections to Tarski. Field demands that semantic properties be dependent on speakers in a way in which Tarski's substitutes are not. A familiar sort of semantic theorist demands that meaning and truth conditions be contingent, but analytically connected, properties of a sentence in a manner in- compatible with Tarski. The only way to defend Tarski's philosophical interpretation of his work is to reject these demands.

Although this might initially seem to be a desperate strategy, it is not. Think of a standard first-order language $L$ as a triple $(S_L, D_L, F_L)$, where $S_L$ is a family of sets representing the various categories of well-formed expressions of $L$; $D_L$ is a domain of objects; and $F_L$ is a function that assigns objects in $D_L$ to the names of $L$, subsets of the domain to one-place predicates of $L$, and so on.[24] Let J be a class of such languages. Truth can now be defined in nonsemantic terms for variable '$L$' in J in a straightforward Tarskian fashion.
The only significant change from before is that the notions of primitive denotation are no longer given language-specific list definitions, but rather are defined for variable '$L$' using the "interpretation" functions built into the languages. In particular,[25]
a name $n$ refers to an object $o$ in a language $L$ iff $F_L(n) = o$.
The resulting truth predicate is just what is needed for metatheoretical studies of the nature, structure, and scope of a wide variety of theories.

What the truth definition does not do is tell us anything about the speakers of the languages to which it applies. On this conception, languages are abstract objects, which can be thought of as bearing their semantic properties essentially. There is no possibility that expressions of a language might have denoted something other than what they do denote; or that the sentences of a language might have had different truth conditions. Any variation in semantic properties (across worlds) is a variation in languages. Thus, semantic properties aren't contingent on anything, let alone speaker behavior.

What is contingent on speaker behavior is which language a person or population speaks and which expression a given utterance is an utterance of. Let $L_1$ and $L_2$ be two languages in J which are identical except for the interpretations of certain nonlogical vocabulary-perhaps the color words in $L_1$ are shape words in $L_2$. We can easily imagine a situation in which it is correct to characterize $L_1$, rather than $L_2$, as the language of a given population. To ask what such a characterization amounts to, and what would justify it, is to ask not a semantic question about the languages, but a pragmatic question about their relation to speakers. (Soames 1984, pp. 425-6. Emphasis above added)

Soames's footnotes are also interesting. He says that this way of looking at things was suggested to him by David Lewis 1975, "Languages and Language", and by remarks by Saul Kripke in a seminar on truth in 1982.

Footnote 24. This sort of construction is familiar from model theory. However, its use here is different from model-theoretic treatments. Here we are not defining truth in $L$ relative to a model, but rather truth in $L$ (simpliciter) for an enriched conception of a language. This way of looking at things was suggested to me from two sources: David Lewis's "Languages and Language," in K. Gunderson, ed., Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, VII (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1975), pp. 3-35; and one of Saul Kripke's seminars on truth, Princeton, 1982.

Footnote 25. Note, $F_L$ is a purely mathematical object--a set of pairs, if you like. Thus, it does not incorporate any undefined semantic notions. This was one of the points noted by Kripke in the seminar mentioned in fn 24.
Given the Lewis-Soames-Kripke connection, one might be tempted to call this the Princeton View! Though it's safer to stick with the Abstract View.

A dramatic consequence of this view (amongst others) is that nominalism about abstract entities becomes very hard to salvage if languages themselves are abstract entities. For the nominalist wishes to defend the view that there are no numbers, or sets, or functions, or structures, or sequences, or types, etc., while taking language as a given. However, if the Abstract View of language is anything like right, then this given is already abstract in the way that nominalists reject. This objection is not new (in effect, it appears in Quine's writings frequently after the joint 1947 paper, "Steps Toward a Constructive Nominalism", with Nelson Goodman, attempting to base a workable theory of syntax on concrete tokens; Quine seems to have given up this approach quite quickly) and is one that I've made to nominalists in talks and seminars for a long time (a version, discussing syntax and metalogic, appears in Ch. 1, Scs 1.7 and 1.8, of my 1998 PhD thesis, "The Mathematicization of Nature").

[Update, 10:38pm - some edits!]

Monday, 10 September 2012

CFP: What is/was logic? Historical perspectives (UNILOG)

The upcoming Universal logic (UNILOG) congress, taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (3-7 April 2013), will be hosting a special session on the scope of logic through history: "What is/was logic? Historical perspectives"

Organizers: Catarina Dutilh Novaes and Amirouche Moktefi. 
The keynote speaker is Anita Feferman.

 Throughout most of the history of Western philosophy, there has been a closely related (sub-) discipline called ‘logic’. However, the common name should not conceal the marked differences among what counted as logic at different times. In other words, despite the stable name, logic as a discipline is not characterized by a stable scope throughout its history. True enough, the historical influence of Aristotelian logic over the centuries is something of a common denominator, but even within the Aristotelian tradition there is significant variability. Furthermore, as is well known, in the 19th century logic as a discipline underwent a radical modification, with the birth of mathematical logic. The current situation is of logic having strong connections with multiple disciplines – philosophy, mathematics, computer science, linguistics – which again illustrates its multifaceted nature.

 The changing scope of logic through its history also has important philosophical implications: is there such a thing as the essence of logic, permeating all these different developments? Or is the unity of logic as a discipline an illusion? What can the study of the changing scope of logic through its history tell us about the nature of logic as such? What do the different languages used for logical inquiry – regimented natural languages, diagrams, logical formalisms – mean for the practices and results obtained?


 This special UNILOG session will focus on both the diversity and the unity of logic through time. Topics may include:
- Historical analyses on what specific logicians or logic traditions considered to be the nature and scope of logic.
- Historical analyses illustrating differences in scope and techniques with respect to the current conception of logic, but also suggesting points of contact and commonalities between these past traditions and current developments (possibly by means of formalizations).
- Historical and philosophical discussions on the place of logic among the sciences and its applications/relations with other disciplines, now and then.
 - Discussions of the logical monism vs. logical pluralism issue in view of the historical diversity/unity of logic over time.
- General philosophical reflections on what (if anything) the diversity of scope and practice in the history of logic can tell us about the nature of logic and the role of universal logic as such.

Abstracts for this special session (around 1000 words) should be submitted by email to 
history.unilog2013 [ at ] gmail. com by November 1st 2012. 
Further inquiries can also be directed to this email address or to one of the organizers.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Yet another application of Bayesianism: mapping the historical origin of Indo-European languages

The article 'Mapping the origins and expansion of the Indo-European language family' came out a few days ago in Science. The abstract:
 There are two competing hypotheses for the origin of the Indo-European language family. The conventional view places the homeland in the Pontic steppes about 6000 years ago. An alternative hypothesis claims that the languages spread from Anatolia with the expansion of farming 8000 to 9500 years ago. We used Bayesian phylogeographic approaches, together with basic vocabulary data from 103 ancient and contemporary Indo-European languages, to explicitly model the expansion of the family and test these hypotheses. We found decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin. Both the inferred timing and root location of the Indo-European language trees fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8000 to 9500 years ago. These results highlight the critical role that phylogeographic inference can play in resolving debates about human prehistory.
(Buuuuuut... Let me note that I have a post cooking in my head now where I'll be criticizing some of the assumptions made by Bayesian accounts of human rationality -- lest anyone should think I've experienced a recent conversion...)