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  • Semantics, metasemantics, aboutness by Ori Simchen
  • Gila Sher
Semantics, metasemantics, aboutness. By Ori Simchen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xviii, 159. ISBN 9780198792147. $60.

In this book Ori Simchen advocates a productivist approach, or orientation, to metasemantics, which he contrasts with what he calls the interpretationist approach. The book is divided into six chapters and contains three appendices. The first chapter sets the ground for the book by introducing semantics and metasemantics, the interpretationist and productivist distinction, the major players on both sides of the distinction, and the main problem—indeterminacy—that S will use to adjudicate between the two approaches. It is accompanied by an appendix that compares David Lewis’s early and later conceptions of metasemantics. Ch. 2 discusses the problems arising for the interpretationist approach to singular reference by Hilary Putnam’s (model-theoretic) indeterminacy argument and is accompanied by two appendices. The first appendix explains the mechanics (‘scrambled truth’) of Putnam’s argument, and the second describes Saul Kripke’s extension of the causal-historical productivist theory of reference to mathematical expressions. Ch. 3 is devoted to the role of aboutness in metasemantics. Chs. 4 and 5 introduce two case studies supporting productivism: self-reference and legal interpretation. The concluding chapter returns to indeterminacy, the main issue that stands between productivism and interpretationism.

Metasemantics, as S sees it, is the philosophy of semantics. Semantics assigns semantic values (reference, meaning, truth conditions) to linguistic expressions; metasemantics investigates the principles governing the assignment of semantic values to such expressions. In S’s words, ‘[s]emantics studies the what of semantic endowment while metasemantics studies the how’ (55). Metasemantics investigates how, or in virtue of what, linguistic expressions have the semantic value they have, including the role played by aboutness (our intuitions of what they are about) in determining their semantic values.

S’s distinction between productivism and interpretationism centers on who determines the semantic values of linguistic expressions. Interpretationists and productivists approach semantic values from the opposite ends of linguistic discourse. Productivists focus on the ‘producers’ of linguistic discourse, interpretationists on its ‘consumers’. Productivists say that what determines the semantic values of tokens of linguistic discourse—reference and satisfaction of subsentential utterances, truth conditions of sentential utterances—is what its producers intend their words to refer to and what they intend to say about these referents. The producers’ intention is a matter of [End Page 991] fact. In the case of reference, for example, the facts are determined by (i) what objects there are in speakers’ environments, (ii) what objects they intend their words to refer to, and (iii) the causal-historical chains that connect them to these objects. Reference is prior to truth; world is prior to mind. The truth values of full (token) sentences are determined by whether their truth conditions are satisfied by the world, where their truth conditions are determined by the reference of their subsentential constituents.

Thus, according to the productivist account, if a particular cat in the world belonged to W. V. Quine, if Quine named her ‘Tabitha’, and if on a certain particular occasion of uttering the word ‘Tabitha’ Quine intended to refer to this cat, then on this occasion this cat is the referent of Quine’s utterance ‘Tabitha’. And if on that occasion Quine said ‘Tabitha is a cat’ and by ‘cat’ he intended to mean a certain kind of animal with which he had certain causal/historical connections, then these circumstances fix the reference (satisfaction conditions) of ‘cat’ in that utterance as well. These two facts (concerning reference) determine the truth conditions of Quine’s utterance ‘Tabitha is a cat’, and, finally, these truth conditions, together with the world, determine the truth value of ‘Tabitha is a cat’ as uttered by Quine on that occasion.

In contrast, interpretationists focus on how language consumers, that is, those who listen to (or read) certain linguistic utterances, understand and interpret them and determine their semantic values. Whereas productivists proceed from the bottom up—from words to sentences and from reference to truth—interpretationists proceed from the top down—from sentences to words, and from truth to reference. According to Donald Davidson, for example, we interpret speakers...


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