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Volume 49 • Number 4

October 2012




by Nicholas J. J. Smith

Philosophers, linguists, and others interested in problems concerning natural language frequently employ tools from logic and model theory. The question arises as to the proper interpretation of the formal methods employed—of the relationship between, on the one hand, the formal languages and their set-theoretic models and, on the other hand, the objects of ultimate interest: natural language and the meanings and truth conditions of its constituent words, phrases, and sentences. Two familiar answers to this question are descriptivism and instrumentalism. The descriptivist regards model theory as giving a literal (although not necessarily complete) description of the relationship between language and the world: a system of model theory as a whole tells us about the kinds of relationships that a language may have to a world; what is going on in the intended model of a particular discourse tells us (something about) the actual relationship between that discourse and the world. The instrumentalist denies this. Model theory, in the instrumentalist's view, can be useful in various ways–for example, it might provide a useful calculus for predicting speakers' assertions–but it does not provide a literal description (not even a partial one) of the meanings or truth conditions of natural language expressions.

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ISSN: 2152-1123