Arthur Merin

If All Our Arguments Had To Be Conclusive, There Would Be Few Of Them

Arbeitspapiere des SFB 340, Bericht Nr. 101 (1997), 38pp.
DVI (143kb); Postscript (394kb)1-up; Postscript gzip-komprimiert (114kb) 1-up , 2-up.


... And if they were, of us.1 But we are plentiful, and so are they. Given this fact of current life, a theory of meaning whose backbone is proof positive2 cannot be general. Since proof is a key ingredient of the most well-developed computational theories of mind, objections to it are also objections to the most straightforward, procedural explication of individually psychologistic Conceptual Role Semantics.3

Proof-conditional theories of meaning are set off from essentially and avowedly truth-based ones by the insistence that truth-conditions unverifiable in principle or practice are not a sound basis for a theory of meaning.4 Was there a penguin within five feet of the south pole thirty days ago? Questions of this kind, and others involving the distant future, have been offered as counterexamples to truth-conditional foundations for a theory of meaning. But the range of application of a proof-theoretic semantics will be circumscribed no less severely than that of its truth-conditional foil. Everyday means for getting an answer to the question concerning the penguin are as close to hand as those for knowing whether or not someone's software did give us a proof of the Four Colour Theorem. To argue, then, that proof positive informs everyday linguistic practice --- `grasp' rather than proto-juridical imputability --- involves a leap of faith comparable to that which antirealists impute to their opposite numbers.

There are, of course, other objections to the viability of a verificationist theory of meaning, not least because it is far from clear what it would amount to once expressions of propositional attitude are being considered. But then, attitude contexts (Kim believing that Sandy talks) are problematic for any would-be compositional theory of meaning, as Schiffer (1987) has argued.5 In what follows I shall try to make a substantive case for a theory of meaning based on the specific objection levelled at the proof-theoretic approach.

  1. No joke. The first thing that enters a mind concentrated by sudden anger or reckless greed often enough speaks for the radical approach to significant others.
  2. Cf. Dummett (1976), Martin-Löf (1984).
  3. Embodied in the classic showpieces of artificially intelligent language understanding.
  4. I use the term interchangeably with `meaning theory'. Let context decide whether reference is to a theory imputable to natives, a theory of such a theory espoused by the analyst, or a theory about the possible form one or the other of the preceding might take.
  5. This is a matter I shall not attend to here. My feeling is that one should either discuss it at the level of technicality and explicitness exemplified in Montague (1974), or leave it.

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