In her first Baggett lecture, Barbara Partee raised an interesting question: why does Chomsky seem ill disposed towards semantics? I’m going to address this question here, though obliquely. To avoid exegetical concerns, I will try to channel Chomsky and answer a related question: what are my problems with semantics? You are not the only ones that find this bait and switch disappointing. Even I find the swap downward sloping. However, maybe this will help: over the years, I have drenched myself with Chomsky’s writings on this issue and though I will almost certainly misrepresent his views what I will say, I believe, is Chomskyish if not 100% pure Chomsky. It goes without saying that I hold him personally responsible for any missteps in the exposition that follows. I would also like to add that I talked about the stuff below with Paul Pietroski and Bill Idsardi and so whatever you don’t like that isn’t Chomsky’s fault is almost certainly theirs. So with this much CYA, let’s get on with the post! Warning, it’s a bit long.
I have three reasons for being semantically cynical.
First, semantics has an odd relation to what I take to be the central project of Generative Grammar; the investigation of and limning of the fine structure of UG (see here). This project takes the object of inquiry to be I-language and so is necessarily internalist (see here). The first problem with semantics is that practitioners conceive of the discipline as necessarily not internalist. Two ur-texts for this enterprise are Lewis’s General Semantics and Language and Languages. These two texts define semantics as an externalist enterprise. In the first paper, Lewis excoriates “markarese” approaches to semantics precisely because they are internalist and eschew the semantic project of establishing referential dependencies between markarese features and mind external denotata. Lewis insists that semantics without language-world referential links is just not semantics, hence markarese, whatever else it might be cannot be semantics. In the second paper, Lewis defends the position that languages are more basic than I-languages (i.e. grammars) and that the features of the latter are ontologically secondary to those of the former (see here). Grammars, being in the head, are not what semantics is about. One virtue of Barbara’s lectures is that they make it clear that the Lewis perspective on the semantics enterprise is still a (the?) dominant conception, when semanticists think about these questions at all.
In making his argument against markarese, Lewis was adopting a conventional view of what semantics is, a theory of the relation between representations and their external denotata. This adopts the well known tri-partite partition of syntax, semantics and pragmatics. At any rate, if semantics is the theory of referential relations between “words and objects” then internalist semantics is not semantics and if your interest is in UG and I-languages then this referential conception of semantics is not obviously relevant.
Chomsky occasionally throws a bone to this kind of work and moots an internalist re-interpretation of the dominant model theoretic technology. However, there is also a line of argument where he suggests deeper problems with this kind of inquiry: the proposed idealization either misses the central facts or is technically superfluous. Let me discuss these points in turn.
Wrong idealization: what distinguishes human language from other kinds of animal communication systems is precisely the looseness of the relation between lexical signs and their multiple open textured “denotata.” As Chomsky has repeatedly emphasized, it is not at all clear what terms in a natural language refer to. Does ‘London’ pick out a spatio-temporal local? If so how we coherently consider the possibility that it burn down, it move 45 miles down the Thames and it get rebuilt. Maybe, ‘London’ refers to some kind of functionally organized entity, say the organization of buroughs and towns that make up greater London. But if this is what ‘London’ denotes how can London be 100 miles in circumference and densely populated. What’s true about ‘London’ is true for books (musical compositions, essays etc.), which can be both physical objects (concreta) and notional ones (abstracta), and for terms like ‘average men,’ (which can have 2.5 children) ‘temperatures,’ (which can be 90 and rising) and almost any other word that one thinks of carefully. This vast polysemy marks natural language lexemes and distinguishes them from what we see in other animal communication systems, where in fact a crude kind of immediate referentiality is de rigeur. Chomsky reinforces this point here by contrasting human and animal communication systems:
Maybe we don’t know the right things, but everything that is known about animal thought and animal minds is that the analogues to concepts…do happen to have a reference-like relation to things. So there is something like a word object relation. Every particular monkey call is associated with a particular internal state, such as “hungry” or a particular external state, such as “There are leaves moving up there so run away.” [referring to a large survey by Gallistel Chomsky continues]…Animal communication is based on the principle that internal symbols have a one-to-one relation to some external even or an internal state. But that is simply false for human languages-totally (25).
Conclusion: the loose fit between words/concepts and things in human linguistic systems as contrasted with the strong fit witnessed in animal systems speaks to the inappropriateness of notions like ‘reference’ in semantic theories interested in human linguistic practice. Referential theories abstract away from precisely those features of human systems that make them distinctively human, and that’s not good. So to the degree that we have a rough understanding of what a reference relation might look like, our use of language doesn’t display it!
There is a second line of argument, one that concentrates on the fact that it is of no obvious utility. His argument here is by analogy with a model theoretic “phonology.”
Let us suppose that LI [linguistic item NH] has no I-sound but P-denotes some object that is external to the person; call it the phonetic value PV of LI…and suppose some computation on PVs yields the linguistic component of the sound of E, PV(E). PV could be something about the noises associated with the utterances…of E as circumstances vary...; a construction from motions of molecules, perhaps. The proposal could be elaborated by taking PV to be determined by social and physical factors of various kinds…
The proposal leaves all problems where they where, adding a host of new ones. We understand nothing more about the relation of E to its external manifestations. The account of communication and other processes is worthless…
Chomsky then extends the analogy to the semantic interface and notes that it that it too doesn’t “advance” our understanding, as it “merely restate[s]” the original problems. Setting up this kind of referential story teaches us “nothing about how expressions are used and interpreted.” (177-8). In sum, referential theories of meaning are either deeply misleading or of no utility, at least if one’s interest is in understanding how meaning works in I-languages or its roots (if any) in UG.
Third: one answer to Chomsky’s polysemy examples relies on conceding that human lexical items are severely polysemous and to manage this fact by introducing disambiguating indices. This too is unattractive for two reasons.
First, there appears to be no upper bound on the number and kinds of indices relevant to determining how we are to interpret an expression. Aside from the simple indices like time, place and interlocutors, one’s hopes, dreams, ambitions, disappointments etc are all potentially relevant in getting a fix on what a term is supposed to refer to in a given context. The problem is not that we cannot fix relevant parameters given a context, but there is no plausible suggestion of what the relevant parameters are and how to fix them across contexts. What we find are not theories of indices but examples with no reason to think that the list of relevant indicial parameters is anywhere near complete or completeable.
Second, the polysemy problem goes to the very heart of the system once one considers that the same expression can bind distinct variables and give them different referents. Chomsky has provided many examples: "The book that weighs twenty bounds is inspiring" (physical object in relative clause and abstract one in main clause), " The temperature which is now 90 is rising quickly" (value in relative, function is matrix), " John ate (some) lamb last night that was grass fed/slaughtered in the kosher style (mass in matrix, count in relative clause)."
In these examples the two variables relate to the same antecedent yet receive distinct denotations. It appears that the polysemy is not resolved but carries all the way to the interpretation of the various bound variables, a problem that assigning separate indices for each interpretation of the antecedent will exacerbate, not ameliorate.
I have reviewed three reasons that syntacticians like me are skeptical about the semantic enterprise as currently practiced. They all boil down to the same point: they don’t appear to reveal much about the structure of UG and actually presuppose a vision of the linguistic enterprise antithetical to the one that places the structure of UG and I-language as its object of inquiry. Someone once suggested a verbal distinction to me that is useful here. Linguists are people who study FL/UG and the properties of I-langauge. Languists are people who study language. Syntacticians are linguists, semanticists languists. Linguists are skeptical that notions like 'language' pick out scientifically manageable objects of inquiry. Langusits think grammars are suspicious abstracta. Not surprisingly the two groups have trouble understanding each other. Thanks to Barbara Partee for making it clearer to me why this is so.
 Indeed, he considers the possibility that “natural language has only syntax and pragmatics” semantics existing “only in the sense of “the study of how this instrument whose formal structure and potentialities of expression are the subject of syntactic investigation, is actually put to use in a speech community…” More pointedly, there is no “provision for … “the central semantic fact about language,…that it is used to represent the world,” because it is not assumed that language is used to represent the world, in the intended sense.” (See here p. 132). In other words, Chomsky believes that the abstraction to a semantic level of analysis, which isolates a reference relation as the fundamental feature, is misguided.
 The specific target of criticism was a proposal developed by Fodor and Katz but their theory was stand-in for a broad range of non-denotational theories. I should add, the Fodor-Katz theory was, to my mind, not that terrific, but less because it was internalist than because postulating features ad hoc does not carry much explanatory oomph.
 Fillmore, quoted in Dowty’s book (375) makes a similar point that Dowty rejects: Fillmore said: “…issues in semantics that have no conceivable application to the process of comprehension cannot be very important for semantic theory.” Fillmore suggests this as a “relevance test” for evaluating research in semantics. Replacing ‘the process of comprehension’ with ‘the structure of UG’ in the above pretty well sums up my view as well. Btw, Dowty agrees that the semantic enterprise “has in principle nothing whatsoever to do with what goes on in a person’s head” and thus has nothing whatsoever to do with the structure of UG. Different strokes!