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Re: [ontolog-forum] syntax & semantics

To: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Tue, 28 Apr 2009 00:03:41 -0400
Message-id: <49F6801D.1090608@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Dick and Jawit,    (01)

RHM> In a most unfortunate perversion of definitions, probably due
 > to the influence of Noam Chomsky, "formal semantics"/"model theory"
 > is concerned with the syntax of a language, independent of the
 > semantics of a language.    (02)

No.  Far more influential on everybody (including Chomsky) is
the tradition derived from Aristotle's writings on language,
logic, ontology, rhetoric, and poetics.  The most general
introduction is the book _On Interpretation_:    (03)

    http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/interpretation.html    (04)

During the late middle ages (10th to 14th centuries), the basic
Aristotelian approach was elaborated in great detail in the
university curriculum.  Every university student began with
the Seven Liberal Arts, which were divided in the Trivium
of language arts and the Quadrivium of mathematical arts:    (05)

Trivium:    (06)

   1. Grammar
   2. Logic
   3. Rhetoric    (07)

Quadrivium:    (08)

   4. Arithmetic
   5. Geometry
   6. Music
   7. Astronomy    (09)

For a modern textbook on the Trivium, I recommend the following book
by Sister Miriam Joseph, which she taught to freshman English majors
at St. Mary's college from the 1930s to 1960:    (010)

    Joseph, Sister Miriam (1937) _The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic,
    Grammar, and Rhetoric_, Third edition 1948, reprinted by Paul Dry
    Books, 2002.    (011)

Sister Miriam earned a PhD in English at Columbia University, where she
analyzed Shakespeare's use of the logical and rhetorical patterns that
were taught in the textbooks of his day.  Both her textbook and her
PhD dissertation are available in paperback on Amazon.    (012)

The three branches of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric were relabeled
by Morris Cohen in the 1930s as Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics.
Those are the terms that are commonly used in logic and linguistics,
but the basic subdivisions follow Aristotle and the medieval Trivium.    (013)

RHM> Formal semantics looks at the properties of the syntax of
 > a language which do not depend on the actual semantics of the
 > language.    (014)

I have no idea what you mean by "actual semantics".  In his various
books, Aristotle relates his analysis of language to psychology
(in the book _De Anima_ or _On the Soul_), to rhetoric and poetics
(in the books with those titles), and to ontology (in the books
on Categories and Metaphysics).  Aristotle covered a very broad
range of semantics in one or another of those books, the medieval
logicians and philosophers developed them further, and all those
areas were developed in greater depth in the 19th, 20th, and 21st
centuries.    (015)

RHM>  That is why I associate
 >     syntax with "possible meaning"
 >     and semantics with "real meaning".    (016)

JK> I'm sorry, this seems arbitrary and something I would
 > have to file as "specialized words that only Dick McCullough
 > has a clue what he means".    (017)

I agree with Jawit.  Dick seems to have some private insight
into "real meaning" that is different from anything that anybody
from Aristotle to the present has been able to articulate.    (018)

JK> The word syntax doesn't mean possible in any way to me, and
 > syntax is not tied to "meaning" in my mind.    (019)

I agree.    (020)

JK> If you [RHM] think "real meaning" is the meaning inside
 > someone's head, fine, but I don't have any clue what the forms
 > that the meaning inside my head has, but if I express those
 > forms using logic, then I have a hope that a computer can come
 > up with other forms using logical inference that correspond to
 > some other meaning inside my head which I would think is a
 > consequent of the meanings that I originally had.    (021)

That is basically what everybody from Aristotle to Tarski has
said, and I believe that they are on the right track.    (022)

RHM> Let's not lose sight of the fact that semantics logically
 > precedes syntax.  As a language evolves, there is an interaction
 > between syntax and semantics, but syntax is the servant of semantics.    (023)

I certainly agree that "syntax is the servant of semantics" in the
sense that the purpose of syntax is to express semantics.  But I
would add that "semantics is the servant of pragmatics" because
the ultimate purpose of any statement is the pragmatics (or as
Aristotle called it, rhetoric).    (024)

However, the order of what precedes or follows depends on
whether you are speaking or listening, as Jawit noted:    (025)

JK> Since I know you have said something in the past about semantics
 > being what you "mean" by a mKR statement, are you just saying that
 > what you think in your head must be filtered through some logical
 > process (presumably in your head) which will eventually yield the
 > actual symbols you write down on on paper i.e. the syntax?    (026)

JK> If this is what you mean that "semantics precedes syntax", how
 > does the computer even come into play until the last, where you
 > use the computer to record what you were thinking, instead of
 > writing it down on a piece of paper?    (027)

Yes, indeed.  For the listener or reader (whether human or computer),
the form of the words comes first, and the meaning (semantics or
pragmatics) must be derived from the words and the patterns of
words (syntax) as related to the context, which includes the
nonlinguistic environment, the preceding discourse, and the
shared background knowledge of the speaker and listener.    (028)

All of those relationships have been analyzed in depth in the
millennia from Aristotle to the present,    (029)

John Sowa    (030)

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