Formal Semantics and Pragmatics: Origins, Issues, Impact
“Semantics” can mean quite different things in different contexts; fields concerned with semantics are as diverse as psychology, law, computer science, lexicography, logic, philosophy, and linguistics. “Pragmatics” is an equally wide-ranging term, with applications in politics and ethics as well as in linguistics and philosophy. Formal semantics and pragmatics as it has developed over the last 50 years has been shaped by fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration among linguists, philosophers, and logicians.
Formal semantics arose in the 1960’s in the context of two ongoing “wars” — the “linguistics wars” between generative semantics and interpretive semantics concerning the relation between syntax and semantics, and the “formal language-ordinary language war” in philosophy of language, which was carried on between opponents who were nevertheless in agreement that “natural language has no logic”. Formal semantics helped to resolve the issues behind both of those wars.⠀
In this talk I’ll reflect on this history and the subsequent growth of formal semantics and formal pragmatics. I’ll touch on innovations and “big ideas” that have shaped the development of formal semantics and its relation to syntax and to pragmatics over the decades. And I’ll describe some of the ways that advances and debates in formal semantics and pragmatics have been and are connected with foundational issues in linguistic theory, philosophy, and cognitive science.