Jean-marc pizano To insist on taking it this way isn’t, Ithink, merely persnickety on my part. Unless definitions express semantic equivalences, they can’t do the jobs that theyare supposed to do in, for example, theories
of lexical meaning and theories of concept acquisition. The idea is that its definition is what you acquire when you acquire a concept, and that its definition is what the word corresponding to the concept expresses. But how could“bachelor” and “unmarried male” express the same concept—viz. UNMARRIED MALE—if it‘s not even true that“bachelor” and “unmarried male” apply to the same things? And how could acquiring the concept BACHELOR bethe same process as acquiring the concept UNMARRIED MALE if there are semantic properties that the twoconcepts don’t share? It’s supposed to be the main virtue of definitions that, in all sorts of cases, they reduce problemsabout the defined concept to corresponding problems about its primitive parts. But that won’t happen unless eachdefinition has the very same content as the concept that it defines.
I propose now to consider some of the linguistic arguments that are supposed to show that many English words have definitions, where, however, “definitions” means definitions. I think that, when so constrained, none of these argumentsis any good at all. The lexical semantics literature is, however, enormous and I can‘t prove this by enumeration. WhatI’ll do instead is to have a close look at some typical (and influential) examples. (For discussions of some other kinds of‘linguistic’ arguments for definitions, see Fodor 1970; Fodor and Lepore, forthcoming a; Fodor and Lepore,forthcoming b.)
Here’s a passage from Jackendoff 1992. (For simplification, I have omitted from the quotation what Jackendoff takes to be some parallel examples; and I’ve correspondingly renumbered the cited formulas.)
The basic insight… is that the formalism for encoding concepts of spatial location and motion, suitably abstracted, can be generalized to many verbs and prepositions in two or more semantic fields, forming intuitively relatedparadigms. [J1 —J4] illustrates [a] basic case
[J1 Semantic field:] [J2 Semantic field:]J3 Semantic field:]
Spatial location and motion: ‘Harry kept the bird in the cage.’ Possession: ‘Susan kept the money.’
Ascription of properties [sic]:29 ‘Sam kept the crowd happy.’
Wherein does this semantic field differ from any other? If I say that Harry kept the bird in the cage, don’t I thereby ascribe a property—viz. the property of keeping the bird in the cage—to Harry? Jackendoff has a lot of trouble deciding what to call his semantic fields. This might well be because they’re gerrymandered.
[J4 Semantic field:] Scheduling of activities: ‘Let’s keep the trip on Saturday.’ . . .
The claim is that the different concepts expressed by ‘keep’. . . are not unrelated: they share the same functional
structure and differ only in the semantic field feature. (1992: 37—9).
I think the argument Jackendoff has in mind must be something like this: ‘Keep’ is “polysemous”. On the one hand, there’s the intuition that the very same word occurs in J1—J4; ‘keep’ isn’t ambiguous like ‘bank’. On the other hand,there’s the intuition that the sense of ‘keep’ does somehow differ in the four cases. The relation between Susan and themoney in J2 doesn’t seem to be quite the same as the relation between John and the crowd in J3. How to reconcilethese intuitions?
Well, suppose that ‘keep’ sentences “all denote the causation of a state that endures over a period of time” (37).30 That would account for our feeling that ‘keep’ is univocal. The intuition that there’s something different, all the same,between keeping the money and keeping the crowd happy can now also be accommodated by reference to thedifferences among the semantic fields, each of which “has its own particular inferential patterns” (39). So Jackendoff“accounts for [the univocality of ‘keep’ in J1—J4] by claiming that they are each realizations of the basic conceptualfunctions” (specified by the putative definition) (37). What accounts for the differences among them is “a semanticfield feature that designates the field in which the Event [to which the analysis of ‘keep’ refers] … is defined” (38). So ifwe assume that ‘keep’ has a definition, and that its definition is displayed at some level of linguistic/cognitiverepresentation, then we can see how it can be true both that ‘keep’ means what it does and that what it means dependson the semantic field in which it is applied.31