Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Omer on linguistic atoms

This is my first curation since agreeing to curate. I am soooo excited! The link is to a piece that Omer has on syntactic atoms. I won't be giving much away if I say that he thinks that it is not entirely clear what these are, though whatever it is, it is not what most people take them to be.  I won't say what his argument is, because you should read it.  But I will say that the main point he makes has been, in part, made by others.

Chomsky has long argued that whatever "words" are they do not have the referential properties that semanticists take them to have. And in this they contrast with animal calls, which, Chomsky points out, fit the referential/denotational paradigm quite tightly. See (here) for some discussion and references.

Similarly, more recently, Paul Pietroski has argued that syntactic atoms do not denote concepts or extensions but something more abstract; something akin to instructions for fetching concepts. As he points out the key desideratum for lexical meanings is that they compose (here Paul follows Fodor who made a very good career pointing out that most of the things that philosophers proposed as vehicles for meaning failed to compose even a little bit). If this is so, then the idea that linguistic atoms are concepts cannot be correct and the question of how our syntactic atoms emerged to mediate our way to concepts becomes an interesting question. Combine this with Chomsky's observations and one has a real research question to hand.

Omer presents another take on this general view; the idea that our standard conceptions of syntactic atoms are scientifically problematic. In fact, given that we have learned something about syntax and the basic operations it might involve over the last 60 years, just what to make of the atoms (of which we have, IMO, learned little) might be even more urgent.

Here is the link to Omer's piece.

1 comment:

  1. Just some thoughts below; not sure they address the remarks Norbert has made (or Omer's piece):
    1. Chomsky draws an important distinction between innate concepts and scientific concepts. Innate concepts result from our seeing and feeling the sun as a yellowish moving disk that warms our faces and bodies. Concept formation results from our biological umwelt (i.e., human nature). The scientific concept SUN is far more complex and derives from community-based scientific enquiry (i.e., an agreement in a Wittgensteinian “form of life”). This distinction implies that some concepts are given to us for “free” (see Chomsky, McGilvray) while others are learned. (I think this approach is significant and highly plausible).
    2. Chomsky tends to suggest that meanings have words rather than the other way around. That is, he reverses the Aristotelian dictum that language is sounds with meanings by suggesting that human language may be meanings conveyed in sounds, signs, and gestures. This would seem to set up a distinction between the meanings of lexical items in the context of an E-language and meanings in the context of I-language. If meanings in natural language-use are built (largely) from innate concepts, then we can hypothesize that the statements “meanings have words” and “words have meanings” are both true. This would also entail the need for disambiguation. Perhaps, I-meanings and E-meanings, might work.
    3. Paul Pietroski’s point also seems correct. Concepts and meanings are doings and seem to involve instruction-kinds. So Frege is wrong-ish in this respect. For example, 1+1 does not denote the same “sense” as 4-2; rather these expressions offer us different instructions which allows us to glean cognitively valuable information. As James McGilvray has pointed out following Goodman: we do not think of the sun or a static shared idea of the sun, rather we think “sunly”. Another way to rework this is to claim that ideas are “doings”.
    4. Chomsky claims that concepts are “word-like but not words”. If this is so (and I think it makes a great deal of sense) then Merge allows us to associate SUN with WARM, YELLOW, DISC, etc. Interpreting Chomsky (perhaps incorrectly) it might be wise to avoid the view that concepts are “linguistic atoms”. Fodor’s concerns over the concept GOLDFISH are skirted therefore by not making the words ‘gold’ and ‘fish’ significant in the process. Since the words are deeply arbitrary, Fodor’s approach would involve working backwards, in a sense i.e., going in the wrong direction. GOLDFISH could be described as an innate concept that connects the concepts GOLD with FISH (others too) but we could be using any sound, say, “ZOT” when referring to goldfish.
    To summarize, we connect the word ‘sun’ (a word in an “instituted language” i.e., learned in the context of the E-language English) to a prelinguistic doing. The meaning of ‘sun’ is connected to the concept SUN (which is not a static common idea but instructions to think sunly) in a way that only needs to be good enough for our biological purposes. And the meaning of ‘sun’ in physics does not include instructions to think sunly but to think in terms understood in the science of Physics.