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.
The mental representation of universal quantifers
On the psychological representations that give the meanings of "every" and "each".
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 each, every, 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.
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.
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.
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.