Biolinguistics XXI: Semantics and Pragmatics

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doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.11300558


Calculating meaningless sentences would be useless and a waste of computing resources, implying that the survival value of non-semantic language would be zero, or less. A consequence is that from syntax alone we cannot explain the evolution of language. This agrees with two propositions defended in the paper: that the main task of language is to deal with intended meanings, and then that language should be centered on semantics and pragmatics.

Biolinguistics is firmly based on the fact that language is a biological product, and then designed by evolution. Therefore, the scientific theory explaining language has to be evolutionary. In other words, biolinguistics is the discipline where language should be explained, because language has to be explained evolutionarily, and this explanation requires semantics and pragmatics, because syntax alone cannot do it.

Language is much more than syntax. For example, syntax, which examines each sentence by itself, cannot see a question-answer pair as a collaborative act by which two persons compose a single meaning together, so syntax is blind to the cooperative nature of language. Unfortunately, ignoring the cooperative nature of language would be fatal to ascertain its survival value, if cooperation was a factor in the evolution of language. And the point is that questioning the rôle of cooperation in the evolution of language cannot even be formulated in syntax, since syntax is blind to cooperation.

I am insisting on the truism that language is more than syntax because the most authoritative explanation of the evolution of language given from current biolinguistics ignores whatever is beyond the semantic-pragmatic interface and it is purely syntactic. So today linguistics is centered on syntax, and the reason is historical. When psychology aimed to be an objective science, it was reduced to behaviorism, but then in 1959 Chomsky argued that syntax cannot fit within behaviorism, and he was successful reducing syntax to computationalism. This way syntax became the center of language and computationalism became the main paradigm in psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics.

However, computationalism cannot model meaning and intentionality, which are both required to model the subject and the subject's language. Therefore, for computationalism to work, the subject should not affect the theories at all, an idealization called objectivism. The objectivist idealization assumes an ideal subject without any calculating limitation who uses an ideal language with an unlimited expressive power. As any idealization, objectivism works well as long as its assumptions make sense, but not further. Accordingly, objectivism cannot work in psychology, including linguistics.

This is then my diagnosis of the situation in linguistics and science: the current paradigm ignores meaning and intentionality, and consequently linguistics is centered on syntax and science is objectivist. In my opinion, the objectivist program cannot progress anymore, so now, at the beginnings of the XXI century, I am calling you to join our subjectivist revolution. If my analysis is right, then any subjectivist revolution has to determine the nature of meaning and intentionality, and here I am proposing one way of doing it. Of course, if you agree with my diagnosis but you do not like my treatment, then you should explore other ways.

My way to subjectivism is built on two proposals. The intentional life proposal says that life is the source of intentionality and meaning. This proposal should not be controversial, but we need to comprehend life or it will be ineffective. The problematic life proposal says that life is the problem of survival and evolution is its resolver. This proposal is problematic, but sensible. Following this proposal, life and evolution are inseparable, and problem solving is their comprehending model.

These two proposals require us to reconsider linguistics and science entirely, and in this paper we take the first steps by defining meaning and intentionality. Then we use Searle's Chinese room to show that meaning is subjective and that semantics depends on pragmatics. Next, capitalizing on the intentional and the problematic life proposals,

Finally, on that basis, we explain evolutionarily why human language is complete, because complete languages are the most expressive languages, and why only human language is complete by relying on the cooperative nature of language.

In summary, this is a paper on the foundations of biolinguistics that proposes a new balance where semantics and pragmatics will weigh more and syntax less.

It was written with the aim of submitting it as an opinion paper to the special number of Biolinguistics on the prospects for the XXI century.

It is a philosophical paper, but mainly dealing with linguistics, so it can be read as an introduction to the linguistics papers.


I defend that the main task of language is to deal with intended meanings, and therefore that language should be centered on semantics and pragmatics. I propose a subjectivist program based on problem solving to achieve that conception of language. I argue that the predominant program of language, which is centered on syntax, is driving biolinguistics to a dead-end. In summary, this is a paper on the foundations of biolinguistics that proposes a new balance where semantics and pragmatics will weigh more and syntax less.


Link to the page of "Biolinguistics XXI: Semantics and Pragmatics" in figshare, and direct link to the pdf file.

Última actualización: 2020-01-13.

© Ramón Casares 2019-2020