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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter 2017

The Idea of Compositionality

From the book Aesthetics Today
Lars Hertzberg


Some analytic philosophers, notably Donald Davidson, have argued that natural languages must be compositional, i. e. the meanings of sentences in the language depend exclusively on their syntax and the meanings of their simple parts. This has been taken to be a precondition for the language being learnable. In this essay, it is argued that the compositionalist account of language learning is untenable. On the one hand, the idea that the understanding of sentences derives from the understanding of component parts is circular. On the other hand, the compositionalist account fails to address the question how in learning to speak we come to use words to express our concerns and to participate in contexts of communicative interaction. Furthermore, in construing the ability to make ourselves understood as an ability to fulfil standards of linguistic correctness, the compositionalist view fails to do justice to the actual conditions of human linguistic interaction.

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Munich/Boston