Why should one do semantics? There is a quote from Davidson (I think I read it in the early chapters of the Heim and Kratzer text) that says roughly, semantics should not tell you anything you don’t already know as a speaker of the language. My question is obviously directed at specific kinds of semantics, namely formal semantics in either the Montagovian or Davidsonian paradigm. It applies somewhat to other kinds though. If these theories aren’t telling us anything about the meaning of sentences that we didn’t already know, what is the reason for pursuing them? There are a few technical kinks to work out in different places. In the Montagovian tradition there are problems with type mismatching and non-intersective adjectives. In the Davidsonian tradition there are problems with context sensitivity.

I suppose that philosophers are interested in semantics because it is supposed to make clearer some philosophical problems. The best example of this would be to help in coming up with a general theory of meaning. By creating semantic theories for different languages, we can see what sorts of properties they share, and so what sorts of properties meaning itself has.

Another shot at an answr is that by getting clear about what the formal meaning of a sentence is, then we have taken a step at getting natural language into a form on which we can do serious logical inquiry. We can start proving theorems and finding out what follows from what. This is an extension of the Fregean-Russellian idea about the logical form of language.

Maybe producing clear, formal truth-conditions for sentences will help us make sense of philosophically loaded words like ‘necessity’ or ‘virtue’. This seems pretty doubtful.

Studying syntax, as linguists do it, gives (or is purported to give) a glimpse of the furniture of the human mind, so even if nothing else comes of syntactic theory, it will have given us some more understanding about the mind. Of course, it looks like other stuff will come of syntactic theory, so it is doing pretty well for itself.

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