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On Compositionality

by Jönsson, Martin, PhD

Abstract (Summary)
The goal of inquiry in this essay is to ascertain to what extent the Principle of Compositionality – the thesis that the meaning of a complex expression is determined by the meaning of its parts and its mode of composition – can be justifiably imposed as a constraint on semantic theories, and thereby provide information about what meanings are. Apart from the introduction (Chapter One) and the concluding chapter (Chapter Seven) the thesis is divided into five chapters addressing different questions pertaining to the overarching goal of inquiry. Chapter Two is an attempt to determine whether the Principle of Compositionality is a trivial principle. It is argued that this is not the case in the context of providing the semantics of natural languages since it is an open question whether the best theories that respect available syntactic and semantic data are compositional. Chapter Three and Chapter Four ask whether there are reasons to think that the Principle of Compositionality is true. It is argued that the three most commonly cited reasons for thinking that correct semantic theories must be compositional – Linguistic Creativity, Productivity and Systematicity – in fact only give us reasons to think that the meaning of complex expressions depend on the meanings of their parts and their modes of composition, but not that the meaning of complex expressions depend ONLY on those factors. Chapter Five asks whether there are any reasons to think that the Principle of Compositionality is false. It is argued that all the phenomena that have been suggested entail non-compositionality are in fact compatible with some versions of compositionality. Even if this conclusion is reached in this chapter, the conclusion of the previous two chapters entails that we are not justified in imposing the Principle of Compositionality as an adequacy constraint on Semantic theories. Chapter Six explores the ways in which information about what meanings are can be derived by imposing constraints on semantic theories. It is argued that the distinction emphasized in Chapter Three and Chapter Four between depending on and depending ONLY on is of critical importance. It is demonstrated that the informative potential of the Principle of Compositionality goes far beyond that of the principle we are in fact justified in imposing on semantic theories. So not only is it the case that we cannot learn anything about meanings from the justified imposition of the Principle of Compositionality – since we cannot justifiably impose it as a constraint on semantic theories – what we could have learned from it had we been justified in imposing it is very different from what we can learn from the principle that we are justified in imposing.
Bibliographical Information:

Advisor:

School:Lunds universitet

School Location:Sweden

Source Type:Doctoral Dissertation

Keywords:HUMANITIES and RELIGION; Linguistic Creativity; Natural Language Semantics; Compositionality; Productivity; Systematicity; Jerry Fodor; Semantic Theories; Meaning; Paul Horwich; Semantic Principles; Peter Pagin

ISBN:978-91-628-7581-7

Date of Publication:01/01/2008

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