Does the Principle of Compositionality Explain Productivity? For a Pluralist View of the Role of Formal Languages as Models

Contexts in Philosophy 2017 - CEUR Workshop Proceedings (2017)
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Abstract
One of the main motivations for having a compositional semantics is the account of the productivity of natural languages. Formal languages are often part of the account of productivity, i.e., of how beings with finite capaci- ties are able to produce and understand a potentially infinite number of sen- tences, by offering a model of this process. This account of productivity con- sists in the generation of proofs in a formal system, that is taken to represent the way speakers grasp the meaning of an indefinite number of sentences. The informational basis is restricted to what is represented in the lexicon. This constraint is considered as a requirement for the account of productivity, or at least of an important feature of productivity, namely, that we can grasp auto- matically the meaning of a huge number of complex expressions, far beyond what can be memorized. However, empirical results in psycholinguistics, and especially particular patterns of ERP, show that the brain integrates informa- tion of different sources very fast, without any felt effort on the part of the speaker. This shows that formal procedures do not explain productivity. How- ever, formal models are still useful in the account of how we get at the seman- tic value of a complex expression, once we have the meanings of its parts, even if there is no formal explanation of how we get at those meanings. A practice-oriented view of modeling gives an adequate interpretation of this re- sult: formal compositional semantics may be a useful model for some ex- planatory purposes concerning natural languages, without being a good model for dealing with other explananda.
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