Pragmatic Minimalism: A Defense of Formal Approaches to Semantics

Open Access
Agler, David Wells
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
February 27, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Vincent M Colapietro, Committee Chair
  • Emily Rolfe Grosholz, Committee Chair
  • Christopher P Long, Committee Member
  • Linda Furgerson Selzer, Committee Member
  • semantics
  • pragmatics
  • contextualism
  • minimalism
  • Peirce
  • formal semantics
  • Williams Syndrome
  • philosophy of language
Context plays a fundamental role in interpreting language. It aids in determining what was said, what was meant, and how we choose to respond. Knowing what a particular utterance means is thus not simply a matter of knowing what the words in the sentence mean along with a grammar. Knowing a language also requires the non-linguistic (pragmatic) capacity to know how context influences the interpretation of sentences. Minimalism is the theory that the role context plays in determining the literal meaning of an utterance is guided entirely by the syntactic and lexical features in the sentence. That is, if the meaning of a sentence depends upon the context in which the sentence is used, then there will be some feature in the sentence itself that conventionally directs the language user to the context. In short, language drives a turn to context. Contextualism, by contrast, is the theory that the interpretation of utterances involves a process of free enrichment, i.e. conversational or pragmatic rules will draw upon features from context to shape the content in certain ways. My argument for minimalism occurs in two parts. First, I articulate and respond to two major objections to minimalism. Incompleteness objections state that the minimalist theory does not deliver propositional content and so falls short as a semantic theory. The inappropriateness objections state that the minimalist theory may deliver propositional content but this content plays no functional role in a larger story involving human communication and cognition. I argue that by appealing to a more expansive notion of language (involving its syntactic and semiotic underpinnings) both of these objections are unwarranted. Second, I offer a number of reasons for choosing minimalism over contextualism. I argue that minimalism offers a psychologically realistic (modular) picture of how we process language, that it provides the best explanation for the existence of cross-contextual communication, and that it best explains the distinction between what we are committed to in virtue of the words we use and what we are committed to in virtue of conversational principles governing communication.