Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Semantic completeness and singular terms

In my last post I distinguished between terms of which you would learn as part of a general requirement to communicate with others, and terms that you would need for specialist communication.  The former you would find in any standard or pocket dictionary,  the latter in a specialist work according to subject (a medical dictionary, a glossary of advanced mathematical terms etc).

The purpose of doing this was to avoid making any philosophical distinction such as between general terms (man') and singular terms ('Socrates').  General terms can occur in generalist ('man') and specialist ('acrocanthosaurus') reference books, and similarly for singular terms: the proper name 'London' is in my general dictionary, the name of individual Londoners in the London telephone book (think of a telephone book as a specialist dictionary of proper names), and the names of individual streets in the specialist 'A-Z of London' street directory.

I say that a discourse is 'semantically complete' in respect of any particular reference dictionary when it is syntactically well-formed, and when its meaning is clear to any person who has learned the meaning of terms found in the dictionary. 

I shall show that a discourse consisting of more than one sentence can be semantically complete, even when some of its component sentences are semantically incomplete. For example:

(1) A man and a boy were standing by a fountain.  The man had a drink.

Clearly the two sentences taken together are semantically complete. Any compact dictionary of English contains words such as 'a', 'man', 'boy' etc, and anyone who has learned the meaning of those words and understands basic English syntax will understand what the two sentences mean together.  So also the first sentence is complete.  Everyone who understands basic English understands "A man and a boy were standing by a fountain".  But the second sentence is not complete, at least not on its own.  You don't understand "the man had a drink" without reference to the first sentence, because without it, you don't understand that the two sentences together imply that a man who was standing by a fountain had a drink.  To understand the second sentence, you have to understand that 'the man' refers back to the man mentioned in the first sentence.  So it is not semantically complete, even though it is part of a discourse which is.

It is the same when we use proper names.

(2) A man called 'Dudley' and a boy were standing by a fountain. Dudley had a drink.

Even though the name 'Dudley', as it is used here, is not contained in any directory or dictionary of proper names, the meaning of the two sentences together is available to any competent speaker of English. For the name 'Dudley' is defined in the first sentence, and for that reason the second sentence is semantically incomplete.  It depends on the definition of the name given in the first sentence, and is not properly understandable without it.  Thus the 'reference' of the proper name 'Dudley' is really back-reference to a previous part of the text.

This conception of reference contrasts with the Kripkean conception of reference where the incomplete sense of a singular sentence must be completed by reference to the external world (not some prior text), and where the sense of a singular term must somehow be 'passed on' from speaker to hearer.  There is no need for reference to the external world, and there is no need for 'passing on' reference.  The reference of the name 'Dudley' in the second sentence is clear because of the semantic completeness of the two sentences together.  It is objectively clear, and does not need to be 'handed' from one person to another except in the sense that the speaker is able to construct a discourse that is clear to any competent hearer, and when the hearer is competent enough to understand it.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Anthony said...

>> You don't understand "the man had a drink" without reference to the first sentence, because without it, you don't understand that the two sentences together imply that a man who was standing by a fountain had a drink.

What if the sentences were "A man and a boy was standing. The man had a drink."? You don't understand that the two sentences together imply that a a man who was standing by a fountain had a drink. So do you not understand the sentence?

What if the sentences were "There once was a man. The man had a drink." Do you understand that?

What is significant about standing by a fountain which is necessary for understanding? Why isn't anything else necessary for understanding, such as whether or not the man wore a tie?

1:33 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

How much information is needed to "define" Dudley?

"There once was a man named Dudley"?

"There once was a person named Dudley"?

"There once was a Dudley"?

"There once was a drinker named Dudley. Dudley had a drink."? The first sentence doesn't add anything to the second. Is the pair "semantically complete".

1:42 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

Also, what about "Dudley was standing. Dudley had a drink."?

Or "Dudley built a fountain. Dudley had a drink."?

Or "Dudley stood next to a fountain. A boy stood nearby. Dudley had a drink."?

Are any of the individual sentences "semantically complete"? Are any of the groups of them?

1:52 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>What if the sentences were "A man and a boy was standing. The man had a drink."?

In that case the second sentence, taken with the first, implies that a man who was standing had a drink. Presumably this wasn't obvious. Oh well.

>>Why isn't anything else necessary for understanding, such as whether or not the man wore a tie?

The first sentence does not mention ties.

1:58 pm  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>"Dudley built a fountain. Dudley had a drink."?

Is semantically incomplete, obviously.

1:59 pm  
Blogger David Brightly said...

But how does the incomplete Dudley built a fountain. Dudley had a drink really differ from Once there was a fountain-builder called 'Dudley'. Dudley had a drink, which is presumably complete? What does the first sentence have to tell us in order to complete the second? From Dudley built a fountain can we not infer there was a fountain-builder called 'Dudley'?

3:01 pm  
Blogger Anthony said...

OK. I reread your definition of "semantically complete", and I guess I get it.

However, what if "Dudley" is listed in the dictionary, as "a man's name". Then is "Dudley had a drink." semantically complete?

12:22 am  
Blogger Edward Ockham said...

>>However, what if "Dudley" is listed in the dictionary, as "a man's name". Then is "Dudley had a drink." semantically complete?

I tried to cover this in my brief summary in one of the previous posts. Orthographically the same name can have different meanings (‘John Smith’) and I would regard it as technically a different name. The telephone directory fully explicates the meaning of a proper name by use of address. Similarly there are many places labelled with the sound or inscription ‘London’, but ‘London Ontario’ is a different name from ‘London England’.

So in answer to your question, "Dudley had a drink" is incomplete, relative to a standard dictionary.

>>But how does the incomplete “Dudley built a fountain. Dudley had a drink” really differ from Once there was a fountain-builder called 'Dudley'. Dudley had a drink, which is presumably complete? What does the first sentence have to tell us in order to complete the second? From Dudley built a fountain can we not infer there was a fountain-builder called 'Dudley'?
<<

That’s an important point. “Dudley built a fountain. Dudley had a drink” is incomplete because it is an extract, a fragment from a larger text. One you anchor the chain by the indefinite starting point ‘a fountain builder’ then it is complete. Compare

(1) there was a man called ‘Shakespeare’ who lived in Stratford. There was a man called ‘Shakespeare’ who was a shareholder of the Globe company.

This is two separate and complete sentences. It is not part of the meaning of the two sentences that there was a person who lived in Stratford who was a shareholder of the Globe company. By contrast

(2) there was a man called ‘Shakespeare’ who lived in Stratford. Shakespeare was a shareholder of the Globe company.

is complete as a whole, but the second sentence is now incomplete. That is because the two sentences now contain the information, as part of their meaning, that one person lived in Stratford who was a shareholder of the Globe company. And furthermore

(3) Shakespeare lived in Stratford. Shakespeare was a shareholder of the Globe company.

is incomplete both singly and as a whole. That is because when attached to the larger text of which it is a fragment, it will generate further implications that you won’t get from (2), or from (1).

10:31 am  

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