This talk will first briefly introduce what Chomsky (2007:15) calls a novel approach to “naturalization
of meaning” (henceforth NoM), and then sketch several reasons that motivates this
emerging research program.
NoM is, in a nutshell, an attempt to study semantic properties (meanings) of linguistic expressions
primarily as natural objects generated by syntax. Human individuals are endowed
with an ability to recursively and hierarchically manipulate linguistic representations that can
be assigned to corresponding sentences. This is simply an undeniable fact in nature, as anybody
can readily conclude through introspection regarding numerous facts about structural ambiguity
and the limitless possibility of embedding a sentence into a larger one. Then, this generative
ability, called syntax, is a bona fide natural object (specifically a biological one) that we can
naturalistically study as such, and a biolinguistic theory of it can be reasonably assumed to fall
within the proper domain of the natural sciences. Taking this as their advantage, advocates of
NoM further claim that we can also regard certain properties of meanings of linguistic expressions
as natural objects, too, as long as they are deterministically carved out by syntax. NoM
thus leads us to seek a natural science of semantics that can supplement the biological study of
human language (biolinguistics). We can call this forthcoming natural science biosemantics, a
term borrowed from Hinzen (2008).
Several considerations motivate NoM. I will briefly list five of them:
(1) NoM can avoid involving in biosemantic theory the intractable complexity of human
intentionality, which has been resisting hundreds of years of serious rationalist investigations.
Under NoM, the object of study is safely defined as the properties of linguistic
expressions carved out by syntax, nothing more, thus it avoids getting into the territory
of language use, a form of free action that is carried out by a person for any number of
purposes he might have in his intention.
(2) NoM fits properly under the rubric of methodological naturalism, a position that studies,
and seeks theoretical understanding of, human language with the same rationale and
methodology as are adopted to investigate other natural objects (Chomsky 1995). We
don’t have to start our inquiry by presupposing any prior conception of semantics, such
as that semantic theory must be denotational, representational or truth-conditional.
(3) NoM can provide a purely internalist theory of meanings. Any reference to I-language external
postulates, such as prescriptive rules, communicative success, reference to
mind-external objects and to truth judgments against individuals’ world knowledge,
is naturally excluded under NoM.
(4) NoM, if successful, can explain (not just formalize or describe) semantics in terms of
syntax and its computational principles.
(5) Hypothesizing that sytnax largely determines semantic interpretation, NoM seeks a
maximally simple and transparent conception of the syntax-sematnics interface. If successful,
the resultant theory of syntax and semantics will meet the minimalist program
for (bio)linguistic theory (Chomsky 1993 et seq.).