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Paul Pietroski

Photo of Paul Pietroski

Professor Emeritus, Linguistics
Emeritus Professor, Philosophy


 

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Research Expertise

Philosophy of Language
Semantics

Paul Pietroski (PhD, MIT) is Professor of Philosophy and Linguistics. His main research interests lie at the intersection of these fields. Recently, his work has focused on how grammatical structure is related to logical form, how meaning is related to truth, and how human concepts are related to linguistic understanding.

Publications

The mental representation of universal quantifers

On the psychological representations that give the meanings of "every" and "each".

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz, Paul Pietroski
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Tyler Knowlton *21, Justin Halberda (Hopkins)
Dates:

A sentence like every circle is blue might be understood in terms of individuals and their properties (e.g., for each thing that is a circle, it is blue) or in terms of a relation between groups (e.g., the blue things include the circles). Relatedly, theorists can specify the contents of universally quantified sentences in first-order or second-order terms. We offer new evidence that this logical first-order vs. second-order distinction corresponds to a psychologically robust individual vs. group distinction that has behavioral repercussions. Participants were shown displays of dots and asked to evaluate sentences with eachevery, or all combined with a predicate (e.g., big dot). We find that participants are better at estimating how many things the predicate applied to after evaluating sentences in which universal quantification is indicated with every or all, as opposed to each. We argue that every and all are understood in second-order terms that encourage group representation, while each is understood in first-order terms that encourage individual representation. Since the sentences that participants evaluate are truth-conditionally equivalent, our results also bear on questions concerning how meanings are related to truth-conditions.

Linguistic meanings as cognitive instructions

"More" and "most" do not encode the same sorts of comparison.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Tyler Knowlton, Paul Pietroski, Jeffrey Lidz
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Tim Hunter *10 (UCLA), Alexis Wellwood *14 (USC), Darko Odic (University of British Columbia), Justin Halberda (Johns Hopkins University),
Dates:

Natural languages like English connect pronunciations with meanings. Linguistic pronunciations can be described in ways that relate them to our motor system (e.g., to the movement of our lips and tongue). But how do linguistic meanings relate to our nonlinguistic cognitive systems? As a case study, we defend an explicit proposal about the meaning of most by comparing it to the closely related more: whereas more expresses a comparison between two independent subsets, most expresses a subset–superset comparison. Six experiments with adults and children demonstrate that these subtle differences between their meanings influence how participants organize and interrogate their visual world. In otherwise identical situations, changing the word from most to more affects preferences for picture–sentence matching (experiments 1–2), scene creation (experiments 3–4), memory for visual features (experiment 5), and accuracy on speeded truth judgments (experiment 6). These effects support the idea that the meanings of more and most are mental representations that provide detailed instructions to conceptual systems.

Interrogatives, Instructions, and I-languages: An I-Semantics for Questions

An internalist semantics for interrogative clauses, from Terje Lohndal and Paul Pietroski.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Paul Pietroski
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Terje Lohndal
Dates:
It is often said that the meaning of an interrogative sentence is a set of answers. This raises questions about how the meaning of an interrogative is compositionally determined, especially if one adopts an I-language perspective. By contrast, we argue that I-languages generate semantic instructions (SEMs) for how to assemble concepts of a special sort and then prepare these concepts for various uses - e.g., in declaring, querying, or assembling concepts of still further complexity. We connect this abstract conception of meaning to a specific (minimalist) conception of complementizer phrase edges, with special attention to wh-questions and their relative clause counterparts. The proposed syntax and semantics illustrates a more general conception of edges and their relation to the so-called duality of semantics.

Poverty of the Stimulus Revisited

Countering recent critiques, Paul Pietroski and collaborators defend the idea that some invariances in human languages reflect an innate human endowment, as opposed to common experience.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Paul Pietroski
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Robert Berwick, Beracah Yankama, Noam Chomsky
Dates:
A central goal of modern generative grammar has been to discover invariant properties of human languages that reflect 'the innate schematism of mind that is applied to the data of experience' and that 'might reasonably be attributed to the organism itself as its contribution to the task of the acquisition of knowledge'. Candidates for such invariances include the structure dependence of grammatical rules, and in particular, certain constraints on question formation. Various 'poverty of stimulus' (POS) arguments suggest that these invariances reflect an innate human endowment, as opposed to common experience: Such experience warrants selection of the grammars acquired only if humans assume, a priori, that selectable grammars respect substantive constraints. Recently, several researchers have tried to rebut these POS arguments. In response, we illustrate why POS arguments remain an important source of support for appeal to a priori structure-dependent constraints on the grammars that humans naturally acquire.

Meaning before truth

Linguistic semantics should be the study, not of reference and truth conditions, but of how the expresssions of a natural language constrain the contents of thoughts and communicative actions.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Paul Pietroski
Dates:
Linguistic semantics should be the study, not of reference and truth conditions, but of how the expresssions of a natural language constrain the contents of thoughts and communicative actions.