Compositionality and expressive power: Comments on pietroski

Elmar Unnsteinsson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Paul Pietroski has developed a powerful minimalist and internalist alternative to standard compositional semantics, where meanings are identified with instructions to fetch or assemble human concepts in specific ways. In particular, there appears to be no need for Fregean Function Application, as natural language composition only involves processes of combining monadic or dyadic concepts, and Pietroski’s theory can then, allegedly, avoid both singular reference and truth conditions. He also has a negative agenda, purporting to show, roughly, that the vocabulary of standard truth conditional semantics is far too powerful to plausibly describe the linguistic competence of mere human minds. In this paper, I explain some of the basics of Pietroski’s compositional semantics and argue that his major objection to standard compositionality is inconclusive, because a similar argument can be mounted against his own minimalist theory. I argue that we need a clear distinction between the language of the theorist—theoretical notation—and the language whose nature we are trying to explain. The theoretical notation should in fact be as expressively powerful as possible. It does not follow that the notation cannot be used to explain mere human linguistic competence, even if human minds are limited in various ways.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)295-310
Number of pages16
JournalCroatian Journal of Philosophy
Issue number60
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
* Many thanks to the participants and organizers of the Philosophy of Language and Linguistics Conference in Dubrovnik 2019, part of which was devoted to Pietroski’s new book. Special thanks are owed to Dunja Jutronić for her help and patience. For discussions of the topics of this paper I am indebted to Paul Pietroski, John Collins, Michael Glanzberg, David Pereplyotchik, Daniel Harris, Finnur Dellsén, Una Stojnic, Ernie Lepore, Barry Smith, Anna Drożdżowicz, Michael Devitt, Paolo Santorio, and David Sosa. This work was supported by the Icelandic Research Fund (grant no. 163132).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Kruzak. All rights reserved.

Other keywords

  • Compositionality
  • Function application
  • Internalism
  • Minimalism
  • Paul Pietroski
  • Semantics


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