Conceptual Atomism and Justificationist Semantics

Manuel Bremer




§1 Whither Semantics?

§2 Justificationist Semantics

§3 Conceptual Atomism

§4 Model Theory, Internal Semantics and Semantic Rules

§5 Limited Decomposition and Analytic Dependencies

§6 Tracing and Evaluating Content

§7 Semantics, Pragmatics, and Epistemology

§7.1 The Semantics-Pragmatics Distinction

§7.2 Coherence as a Problem

§8 Further Relations to Cognitive Science

§8.1 Animal Concepts and the Absence of Symbols

§9 Further Relations to Linguistics

§9.1 Rejection as Atomic Concept

§9.2 Non-Referring Terms

§10 Further Relations to Philosophy

§11 Open Problems

§11.1 The Symbol-Link Problem

§11.2 The Broader Metaphysical Picture

Appendix A: Usage and Basic Ontology

Appendix B: A Solution to the Rule-Following Regress

Appendix C: A Defence of the Church-Turing-Thesis



Conceptual atomism (CA) is the claim that many if not most concepts cannot be decomposed into a set of conceptual parts or features thus that this set of features is not just necessary but also provides a sufficient analysis of the concept, thus that the conjunction of the features is equivalent to the concept in question. Of course there are lots of concepts that are derived compositionally from these atomic concepts, and these derived concepts can, obviously, be decomposed again. Still the majority of concepts – and especially those concepts that are in other semantic theories considered to be decomposable – are not decomposable to the conceptual atomist.
Conceptual atomism of this type – championed by Jerry Fodor – seems to be incompatible with other semantic approaches. This holds foremost for those approaches which in one form or the other work with the ideas of definitions and constitutive truth conditions or constitutive semantic rules. One of these approaches is justificationist semantics, as to be set out below.
In this book I will assume that conceptual atomism – for the reasons given by Fodor – is more or the less right. As a semantic alternative justificationist semantics in its pure form has to be wrong. Nevertheless one central pillar of justificationist semantics, namely its epistemological approach to semantic questions of truth evaluations and meaning, could still stand. The main question of this book, therefore, is how conceptual atomism can be combined with justificationist ideas. Even if semantics was handed over to the conceptual atomist – at least semantics in the narrow sense of the field – there might be a field of epistemology that is more tightly related to semantics – up to being some kind of attachment to core semantics – than epistemology in the broad sense. This new synthesis would centre on the representational theory of mind (RTM) and ‘internalist’ semantics in the sense of Chomsky and Jackendoff, but tie these to ideas from some verificationist tradition, which stresses the felicity conditions and commitments that accompany successful assertions. Accordingly this book does neither present a scholarly overview on conceptual atomism and informational semantics nor on justificationist semantics. Rather it presents the fundamentals and highlights those points the discussion and development of which paves the way to the synthesis aimed at.
§2 outlines some basic ideas that define justificationist semantics in the sense used here. §3 starts with the discussion of conceptual atomism, which in the following paragraphs is related to some other conceptions of semantics and modified in some – supposedly minor – ways (§§4 – 6). Often the modifications on Fodor’s view, which sometimes leaves room for ingredients of other theories, although warning of creating “monsters”, seem to be less substantial than rhetorical. In consequence of putting informational semantics centre stage the borders between semantics, pragmatics and epistemology need to be redrawn (§7). Three further paragraphs (§§8 – 10) trace some relations of the developed picture of semantics to topics in cognitive science, linguistics and philosophy. If conceptual atomism is true, one has, for example, to reconsider both the importance and mechanisms of assigning linguistic symbols to concepts, as well as the prospect of traditional philosophical issues as conceptual analysis and the exploration of the Apriori. The last paragraph (§11) outlines some tougher questions and problems to be explored in the development of a semantics based on conceptual atomism