Jean-marc pizano I appeal to expert testimony; here’s Susan Careyconcluding a review of the literature on the role of definitions (‘conceptual decompositions’, as one says) in cognitivedevelopment: “At present, there simply is no good evidence that a word’s meaning is composed, component bycomponent, in the course of its acquisition. The evidence for component-by-component acquisition is flawed evenwhen attention is restricted to those semantic domains which have yielded convincing componential analyses” (1982:369). (I reserve the right to doubt that there are any such domains; see below.)
So it goes. Many psychologists, like many philosophers, are now very sceptical about definitions. This seems to be a real case of independent lines of enquiry arriving at the same conclusions for different but compatible reasons. Thecognitive science community, by and large, has found this convergence pretty persuasive, and I think it’s right to do so.Maybe some version of inferential role semantics will work and will sustain the thesis that most everyday concepts arecomplex; but, on the evidence, the definitional version doesn’t.
I’d gladly leave it here if I could, but it turns out there are exceptions to the emerging consensus that I’ve been reporting. Some linguists, working in the tradition called ‘lexical semantics’, claim that there is persuasive distributional(/intuitional) evidence for a level of linguistic analysis at which many words are represented by their definitions. It maybe, so the argument goes, that these linguistic data don’t fit very well with the results in philosophy and psychology; ifso, then that’s a problem that cognitive scientists should be worrying about. But, assuming that you‘re prepared to takedistributional/intuitional data seriously at all (as, no doubt, you
I am playing very fast and loose with the distinction between concepts and their structural descriptions (see n. 1 above). Strictu dictu, it can’t both be that the concept BACHELOR abbreviates the concept UNMARRIED MAN and that the concept BACHELOR is the concept UNMARRIED MAN. But not speaking strictly makes theexposition easier, and the present considerations don’t depend on the conflation.
should be) then the evidence that there are definitions is of much the same kind as the evidence that there are nouns.
Just how radical is this disagreement between the linguist’s claim that definition is a central notion in lexical semantics and the otherwise widely prevalent view that there are, in fact, hardly any definitions at all? That’s actually less clearthan one might at first suppose. It is entirely characteristic of lexical semanticists to hold that “although it is anempirical issue [linguistic evidence] supports the claim that the number of primitives is small, significantly smaller thanthe number of lexical items whose lexical meanings may be encoded using the primitives” (Konrfilt and Correra 1993).Now, one would have thought that if there are significantly fewer semantic primitives than there are lexical items, thenthere must be quite a lot of definable words (in, say, English). That would surprise philosophers, whose experience hasbeen that there are practically none. However, having made this strong claim with one hand, lexical semanticists oftenhedge it with the other. For, unlike bona fide (viz. eliminative) definitions, the lexical semanticist’s verb“decompositions . . . intend to capture the core aspects of the verb meanings, without implying that all aspects of themeanings are represented” (ibid.: 83).
Whether the definition story about words and concepts is interesting or surprising in this attenuated form depends, of course, on what one takes the “core aspects” of meaning to be. It is, after all, not in dispute that some aspects of lexicalmeanings can be represented in quite an exiguous vocabulary; some aspects of anything can be represented in quite anexiguous vocabulary. ‘Core meaning’ and the like are not, however, notions for which much precise explication getsprovided in the lexical semantics literature. The upshot, often enough, is that the definitions that are put on offer areisolated, simply by stipulation, from prima facie counter-examples.10
This strikes me as a mug’s game, and not one that I’m tempted to play. I take the proper ground rule to be that one expression defines another only if the two expressions are synonymous; and I take it to be a necessary condition fortheir synonymy that whatever the one expression applies to, the other does too.Jean-marc pizano