Semantic atomism

Theory that the meaning of a phrase or sentence can be analyzed into, and can be constructed out of, the meanings of its constitute words.

These meanings can be accounted for independently, and function as atoms of meaning. Similarly, the theory will analyze the meaning of complex sentences in terms of the meanings of their parts.

The opposite view is called SEMANTIC HOLISM.


Since the use of a linguistic expression is only possible if the speaker who uses it understands its meaning, one of the central problems for analytic philosophers has always been the question of meaning. What is it? Where does it come from? How is it communicated? And, among these questions, what is the smallest unit of meaning, the smallest fragment of language with which it is possible to communicate something? At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Gottlob Frege and his followers abandoned the view, common at the time, that a word gets its meaning in isolation, independently from all the rest of the words in a language. Frege, as an alternative, formulated his famous context principle, according to which it is only within the context of an entire sentence that a word acquires its meaning. In the 1950s, the agreement that seemed to have been reached regarding the primacy of sentences in semantic questions began to unravel with the collapse of the movement of logical positivism and the powerful influence exercised by the philosophical investigations of the later Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein wrote in the Philosophical Investigations, in fact, that “comprehending a proposition means comprehending a language”. About the same time or shortly after, W. V. O. Quine wrote that “the unit of measure of empirical meaning is all of science in its globality”; and Donald Davidson, in 1967, put it even more sharply by saying that “a sentence (and therefore a word) has meaning only in the context of a (whole) language”.


If semantic holism is interpreted as the thesis that any linguistic expression E (a word, a phrase or sentence) of some natural language L cannot be understood in isolation and that there are inevitably many ties between the expressions of L, it follows that to understand E one must understand a set K of expressions to which E is related. If, in addition, no limits are placed on the size of K (as in the cases of Davidson, Quine and, perhaps, Wittgenstein), then K coincides with the “whole” of L.

The many and substantial problems with this position have been described by Michael Dummett, Jerry Fodor, Ernest Lepore and others. In the first place, it is impossible to understand how a speaker of L can acquire knowledge of (learn) the meaning of E, for any expression E of the language. Given the limits of our cognitive abilities, we will never be able to master the whole of the English (or Italian or German) language, even on the assumption that languages are static and immutable entities (which is false). Therefore, if one must understand all of a natural language L to understand the single word or expression E, then language learning is simply impossible.

Semantic holism, in this sense, also fails to explain how two speakers can mean the same thing when using the same linguistic expression, and therefore how communication is even possible between them. Given a sentence P, since Fred and Mary have each mastered different parts of the English language and P is related to the sentences in each part differently, the result is that P means one thing for Fred and something else for Mary. Moreover, if a sentence P derives its meaning from the relations it entertains with the totality of sentences of a language, as soon as the vocabulary of an individual changes by the addition or elimination of a sentence P’, the totality of relations changes, and therefore also the meaning of P. As this is a very common phenomenon, the result is that P has two different meanings in two different moments during the life of the same person. Consequently, if I accept the truth of a sentence and then reject it later on, the meaning of what I rejected and what I accepted are completely different, and therefore I cannot change my opinions regarding the same sentences.

Holism of mental content

These sorts of counterintuitive consequences of semantic holism also affect another form of holism, often identified with but, in fact, distinct from semantic holism: the holism of mental content. This is the thesis that the meaning of a particular propositional attitude (thought, desire, belief) acquires its content by virtue of the role that it plays within the web that connects it to all the other propositional attitudes of an individual. Since there is a very tight relationship between the content of a mental state M and the sentence P, which expresses it and makes it publicly communicable, the tendency in recent discussion is to consider the term “content” to apply indifferently both to linguistic expressions and to mental states, regardless of the extremely controversial question of which category (the mental or the linguistic) has priority over the other and which, instead, possesses only a derived meaning. So, it would seem that semantic holism ties the philosopher’s hands. By making it impossible to explain language learning and to provide a unique and consistent description of the meanings of linguistic expressions, it blocks off any possibility of formulating a theory of meaning; and, by making it impossible to individuate the exact contents of any propositional attitude—given the necessity of considering a potentially infinite and continuously evolving set of mental states—it blocks off the possibility of formulating a theory of the mind.

Confirmation holism

The key to answering this question lies in going back to Quine and his attack on logical positivism. The logical positivists, who dominated the philosophical scene for almost the entire first half of the twentieth century, maintained that genuine knowledge consisted in all and only such knowledge as was capable of manifesting a strict relationship with empirical experience. Therefore, they believed, the only linguistic expressions (manifestations of knowledge) that had meaning were those that either directly referred to observable entities, or that could be reduced to a vocabulary that directly referred to such entities. A sentence S contained knowledge only if it possessed a meaning, and it possessed a meaning only if it was possible to refer to a set of experiences that could, at least potentially, verify it and to another set that could potentially falsify it. Underlying all this, there is an implicit and powerful connection between epistemological and semantic questions. This connection carries over into the work of Quine in Two Dogmas of Empiricism.

Quine’s holistic argument against the neo-positivists set out to demolish the assumption that every sentence of a language is bound univocally to its own set of potential verifiers and falsifiers and the result was that the epistemological value of every sentence must depend on the entire language. Since the epistemological value of every sentence, for Quine just as for the positivists, was the meaning of that sentence, then the meaning of every sentence must depend on every other. As Quine states it:

All of our so-called knowledge or convictions, from questions of geography and history to the most profound laws of atomic physics or even mathematics and logic, are an edifice made by man that touches experience only at the margins. Or, to change images, science in its globality is like a force field whose limit points are experiences…a particular experience is never tied to any proposition inside the field except indirectly, for the needs of equilibrium which affect the field in its globality.

For Quine then (although Fodor and Lepore have maintained the contrary), and for many of his followers, confirmation holism and semantic holism are inextricably linked. Since confirmation holism is widely accepted among philosophers, a serious question for them has been to determine whether and how the two holisms can be distinguished or how the undesirable consequences of unbuttoned holism, as Michael Dummett has called it, can be limited.

Moderate holism

Numerous philosophers of language have taken the latter avenue, abandoning the early Quinean holism in favour of what Michael Dummett has labelled semantic molecularism. These philosophers generally deny that the meaning of an expression E depends on the meanings of the words of the entire language L of which it is part and sustain, instead, that the meaning of E depends on some subset of L. These positions, notwithstanding the fact that many of their proponents continue to call themselves holists, are actually intermediate between holism and atomism.

Dummett, for example, after rejecting Quinean holism (holism tout court in his sense), takes precisely this approach. But those who would opt for some version of moderate holism need to make the distinction between the parts of a language that are “constitutive” of the meaning of an expression E and those that are not without falling into the extraordinarily problematic analytic/synthetic distinction. Fodor and Lepore (1992) present several arguments to demonstrate that this is impossible.

Arguments against molecularism

According to Fodor and Lepore, there is a quantificational ambiguity in the molecularist’s typical formulation of his thesis: someone can believe P only if she believes a sufficient number of other propositions. They propose to disambiguate this assertion into a strong and a weak version:

(S) {\displaystyle \forall p\exists q\neq p\Box (B(x,p)\rightarrow B(x,q))}
(W) {\displaystyle \Box (B(x,p)\rightarrow \exists q\neq p(B(x,q))}

The first statement asserts that there are other propositions, besides p, that one must believe in order to believe p. The second says that one cannot believe p unless there are other propositions in which one believes. If one accepts the first reading, then one must accept the existence of a set of sentences that are necessarily believed and hence fall into the analytic/synthetic distinction. The second reading is useless (too weak) to serve the molecularist’s needs since it only requires that if, say, two people believe the same proposition p, they also believe in at least one other proposition. But, in this way, each one will connect to p his own inferences and communication will remain impossible.

Carlo Penco criticizes this argument by pointing out that there is an intermediate reading Fodor and Lepore have left out of count:

(I) {\displaystyle \Box (B(x,p)\land B(y,p)\rightarrow \exists q\neq p(B(x,q)\land B(y,q))}

This says that two people cannot believe the same proposition unless they also both believe a proposition different from p. This helps to some extent but there is still a problem in terms of identifying how the different propositions shared by the two speakers are specifically related to each other. Dummett’s proposal is based on an analogy from logic. To understand a logically complex sentence it is necessary to understand one that is logically less complex. In this manner, the distinction between logically less complex sentences that are constitutive of the meaning of a logical constant and logically more complex sentences that are not takes on the role of the old analytic/synthetic distinction. “The comprehension of a sentence in which the logical constant does not figure as a principal operator depends on the comprehension of the constant, but does not contribute to its constitution.” For example, one can explain the use of the conditional in {\displaystyle (a\lor \lnot b)\rightarrow c} by stating that the whole sentence is false if the part before the arrow is true and c is false. But to understand {\displaystyle a\lor \lnot b} one must already know the meaning of “not” and “or.” This is, in turn, explained by giving the rules of introduction for simple schemes such as {\displaystyle P\lor Q} and {\displaystyle \lnot Q}. To comprehend a sentence is to comprehend all and only the sentences of less logical complexity than the sentence that one is trying to comprehend. However, there is still a problem with extending this approach to natural languages. If I understand the word “hot” because I have understood the phrase “this stove is hot”, it seems that I am defining the term by reference to a set of stereotypical objects with the property of being hot. If I don’t know what it means for these objects to be “hot”, such a set or listing of objects is not helpful.

3 thoughts on “Semantic atomism

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