Some Elements for an Empirical Approach to the Study of Meaning

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This article argues that meaning must be analyzed in terms of a notion of <i>description</i>. That notion is taken to apply quite generally beyond the language faculty to other cognitive and perceptual modalities. Descriptions are gathered into <i>families</i>, each family having the structure of a semilattice. The semilattice connective corresponds to the<i> and</i> connective of natural language. One distinguishes between<i> pure descriptions</i> and <i>mixed descriptions</i>: a mixed description obtains when pure descriptions are conjoined by means of Boole's connective +, corresponding to the exclusive<i> or</i> of natural language. To illustrate, the description associated with a<i> yes-no</i> question is a mixed description, and so is the description associated with such determiners as English <i>any</i> or English <i>wh-.</i> The connective + is naturally extended to families of descriptions. In turn, mixed descriptions may themselves be arranged into families, with each family having the (really dual) semilattice structure of a family of pure descriptions. Finally, descriptions may be related by the connective<i> IF-THEN</i>. That connective is construed as a mapping between mixed descriptions. In particular, the <i>focus</i> structure of an utterance is defined in terms of that connective. Given a description <i>UXW </i>with subdescription <i>X</i>, <i>X</i> is the<i> focus of UXW</i> iff. the relation <i>IF X is a description of t, THEN UtW is a description</i> hold. The approach adopted ultimately derives from Chomsky's critical appraisal of theories of meaning that rely on some notion of "reference to a world"; see Chomsky (1992, 2000).


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