Article published in:New Questions for the Next Decade
Edited by Gonia Jarema, Gary Libben and Victor Kuperman
[The Mental Lexicon 11:3] 2016
► pp. 350–374
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain
Explaining semantics without semantics
There is a distinction in scientific explanation between the explanandum, statements describing the empirical phenomenon to be explained, and the explanans, statements describing the evidence that allow one to predict that phenomenon. To avoid tautology, these sets of statements must refer to distinct domains. A scientific explanation of semantics must be grounded in explanans that appeal to entities from non-semantic domains. I consider as examples eight candidate domains (including affect, lexical or sub-word co-occurrence, mental simulation, and associative learning) that could ground semantics. Following Wittgenstein (1954), I propose adjudicating between these different domains is difficult because of the reification of a word’s ‘meaning’ as an atomistic unit. If we abandon the idea of the meaning of a word as being an atomistic unit and instead think of word meaning as a set of dynamic and disparate embodied states unified by a shared label, many apparent problems associated with identifying a meaning’s ‘true’ explanans disappear. Semantics can be considered as sets of weighted constraints that are individually sufficient for specifying and labeling a subjectively-recognizable location in the high dimensional state space defined by our neural activity.
Published online: 31 December 2016
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