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!]


  1. Fantastic post! One thought: it seems like maybe a lot of what is most distinctive about this view is not that languages and propositions are taken as abstract, non-spatiotemporal things, but rather the fine-grainedness of the notions of terms and propositions: change the reference, and you change which linguistic object you're looking at.

    This part of the view seems (to me now at least) to be independent of whether sentences are regarded as abstract syntactic types, or token marks and noises - on the second conception, we may not be able to say that two people A and B have uttered the same proposition or sentence, but we can register the same sort of point by saying something like: A and B have uttered wholly equivalent propositions, or two propositions which are identical with respect to syntactic and semantic properties.

    If something like that is workable, then perhaps 'The Abstract View' is not the best name for the view outlined in your post, and perhaps its two notable features - abstractness of linguistic items, and fine-grainedness - should be seen as quite separate things.

  2. Hello Tristan,

    Fine-grainedness means that only a tiny change in the extension of just one expression involves a new language. But it does not imply that all the *other* expressions mean differently. Two languages L1 and L2 may have identical syntax, and almost identical semantics, differing on the meaning of only one word. Fine-grainedness implies that L1 is distinct from L2. (Cf., the fact that sets X and Y are distinct does not imply they do not overlap. Languages may have exactly the same set of expressions and sentences, but merely differ on what these expressions mean.) So, ...

    "we may not be able to say that two people A and B have uttered the same proposition or sentence"

    Certainly speakers can utter the same sentence or assert the same proposition. Suppose that L1 and L2 are the languages A and B speak.
    Sentences are merely strings; so S may belong to both L1 and L2. So, A and B can utter the same sentence, say S.

    Propositions are semantic values (intensions) of sentences. But a sentence S may mean differently in L1 and L2. So, A and B have asserted the same proposition in uttering S iff L1(S) = L2(S).


    1. Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for the clarifications. Still, I see the fine-grainedness as being a separate, independent feature from the regarding of expressions as abstract things rather than spatiotemporal representations. The name 'The Abstract View' only captures the latter, whereas the former part of the view seems just as important, if not more.


  3. Hi Tristan,

    I see now - but that expressions are abstract is not controversial, because expressions are finite sequences, and sequences are abstract. Also, expressions are required to be closed under concatenation, and therefore there are infinitely many of them for most languages of any interest. E.g., a propositional language $L$ with one letter P and negation $\neg$. So, the $L$-formulas are $P, \neg P, \neg \neg P$, etc.
    By "spatio-temporal representations", I think you mean expression tokens? But these are quite different from expressions. And the syntax of a language specifies certain sets (usually infinite) of expressions; syntax is entirely silent about tokens.

    Still, what languages are is controversial, and it is languages (not anything to do with tokens of their expressions) that are finely individuated.




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