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The Philosophical Relevance of Formal Semantics

The Philosophical Relevance of Formal Semantics

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Published by William J Greenberg
How does formal semantics convey meaning?
How does formal semantics convey meaning?

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Published by: William J Greenberg on Nov 17, 2013
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The Philosophical Relevance of Formal Semantics
Philosophers and logicians have developed mathematically precise ways to study the relationship between a language and its subject-matter by using methods originally developed for the interpretation of formal systems in logic. The extension of this framework from formal to natural languages is justified by adopting Frege's truth-conditional approach to meaning. The key idea here is that since a declarative sentence can represent the world as being a certain way the meaning of a sentence can be given by stating the conditions the world has to meet for things to be as the sentence says they are. These are truth-conditions. To give the meaning of every sentence of the language we must specify the truth-conditions of each declarative sentence then relate non-declarative to declarative sentences. Formal semantics addresses the former task the theory of force attempts the latter.!emantics studies the relation between language and the world but the relationship is complicated by the fact that sentences are also inferentially related to one another. For example by sharing some of the same parts sentences can be about the same thing and can even contradict one another. "hen logical connections obtain between sentences the truth of one may re#uire or preclude the truth of others. !o in relating language to the world these connections must be preserved to ensure the right patterns amongst the truth-values assigned to whole sentences.$ogicians first studied these connections in the context of formal systems% languages in which we construct proofs by applying rules of inference to formulae  built up from a fixed set of rules and symbols. To ensure that inferences rules are valid &i.e. that their transitions are truth-preserving we must interpret the formal language provide definitions for the truth of its formulae then discover whether the inferential relations are logical conse#uences permitting only the derivation of truths from truths.(nterpretations or models of these systems are specified in terms of abstract mathematical structures. First we specify a structure and then construct an interpretation function by assigning elements of the structure to the basic symbols of the language as their semantic values. The semantic values of complex expressions are then defined inductively in terms of the values of their simpler
 parts. (n this way the truth-value of a formula is determined by the semantic values of its parts the syntactic arrangement of the formula and relations in the structure between those semantic values. Formulae true in all models are logical truths) truth links which hold in all models are logical conse#uences.*odel-theoretic and truth-theoretic semantics provide the two leading versions of truth-conditional semantics for natural language. *odel theory maps sentences and their parts on to configurations of elements in the domain or structure of a model. The mapping reveals meaning-connections between sentences by exhibiting relations between configurations in the domain. !entences which share parts will have elements of their truth-conditions in common) namely the entity or entities assigned to those expressions. +y this mapping we can plot relations between sentences as represented by the patterns amongst the objects properties and relations assigned to expressions which figure in those sentences. ,ach set of assignments or model corresponds to a world in which some of those sentences are true and others are false.The best-worked-out semantics for a fragment of ,nglish occurs in ichard *ontague's paper 'The Proper Treatment of uantification in /rdinary ,nglish' in which set-theoretical constructs used in specifying the models are not restricted to domains of real entities but include objects existing in other possible worlds and at other times. Thus possible world semantics can be carried out model-theoretically to provide truth-conditions for sentences not just in the actual world but in all  possible worlds.Truth theory offers another version of the truth-conditional approach to meaning. 0rawing on the work of Tarski in defining truth for formali1ed languages a truth theory aims to state the truth-conditions for every declarative sentence of the language $ by proving every T-sentence of the form% &T ! is true-in-$ if and only if pwhere the metalanguage 'is true-in-$' is appended to a sentence ! of the object language $ when and only when certain conditions p obtain. Proof of each instance of T proceeds from axioms which assign references to the simple parts of the object-language sentence together with axioms that state the conse#uences for truth of combining those expressions in sentences. 2 truth theory for a language is

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