In the spring of 2020, I taught a seminar that was related to a book I’m working on—The Vocabulary of Meanings, which will be a kind of sequel to Conjoining Meanings (OUP, 2018). For various reasons, some related to the weirdness of the year, I offered a revised zoom-version in the fall of 2020. It wasn't a Rutgers event or a regular course. It was something between an informal seminar and a directed reading group with a really smart and interesting group of participants from various places. At least for me, it was valuable and a lot of fun. My thanks to those who joined in for the Monday afternoon sessions and helped me think through this material again. This page was originally for that group, and I kept updating it as we went along. I'm leaving the page here in its "end state" for anyone who might be interested in the readings/slides/links. If you encounter broken links, or problems with .zip files, please let me know via email (


In the late 1950s, Noam Chomsky revolutionized the study of the spoken languages that humans regularly acquire. But it’s sometimes thought that from 1957-1967, Chomsky was ignoring meaning in order to focus on syntax—and that he was or became hostile to the study of meaning, at least after the period of 1967-1975, when some combination of Davidson, Lewis, Montague, Kripke, and Putnam made it seem that the study of meaning (a.k.a. semantics) is an externalist enterprise. I’ve come to think that the actual history is rather different and more interesting, that Kripke is often misread, that the usual arguments for meaning externalism are not good, and that the net result has inhibited progress on fundamental questions that were posed 60 years ago.

    In what sense, or senses, is a language like spoken English recursive?

    Why do the non-atomic expressions of such languages exhibit constituency structure, and do such expressions have structured meanings?
    If so, how are these meanings structured, and what are their constituents?
We should consider these questions and the answers that Chomsky’s early work suggested before simply assuming that linguistic meanings determine extensions, and that declarative sentences have truth conditions. These assumptions, either of which can be seen as a corollary of the other, invite a question that has become familiar: what (if anything) does a theory of meaning for a language need to do in addition to specifying extensions for expressions of the language? But in my view, this familiar question is fundamentally misguided and misguiding. I think it has led to distorted conceptions of lexical items, semantic composition, and the “implication” relations exhibited by complex expressions. Conjoining Meanings was largely about composition. So I’ll focus on the polysemy or “conceptual equivocality” of open-class lexical items—including proper nouns and so-called kind terms like ‘water’ and ‘rabbit’—and the importance of representational format, as opposed to truth-theoretic (or model-theoretic) notions, in characterizing implication relations and the meanings of quantificational determiners.


In short: when thinking about meaning, it’s useful to remember what was learned about human languages in the ten years before Davidson conjectured that suitably formulated theories of truth can serve as adequate theories of meaning for these languages; and given that truth-theoretic semantics was never the only game in town, we should ask if it has ever been the best game in town.

Fabian Corver has been conducting interviews for a podcast series "Understanding Chomsky." In addition to talking with Chomsky (youtube), Fabian has interviewed John Collins (youtube), Frankie Egan (youtube), John Mikhail (youtube), David Poeppel (youtube), Jim McGilvray (youtube), Norbert Hornstein (youtube), and me (youtube).

Readings, Slides, and Schedule

Obviously, I won't be discussing all of the readings, at least not in any detail. In weeks where there is a lot, the order of the list will be pretty indicative.


Sept 14, 21, 28


1. Overview [slides for Sept 14]

   (a) first part of chapter one of The Vocabulary of Meanings (Pietroski) pdf

. Back to the 50s: Chomsky and the Hierarchy [slides for Sept 21]

   (a) chapters 1-3 and 9 of Syntactic Structures (Chomsky 1957) pdf
(b) chapter 1 of Syntactic Structures Revisited by Howard Lasnik pdf

   (c) “On Certain Formal Properties of Grammars” (Chomsky 1959) pdf

   (d) “Meanings via Syntactic Structures” (Pietroski) pdf

Here is a narrated version of some slides about the "Chomsky Hierarchy" mainly for those who are new to this material. For old hands, this will be old hat. But feel free to use and tweak the slides for your own purposes. If you want some closely related text to read, before or after you watch the slides, here's a partial draft of chapter two of The Vocabulary of Meanings.

3. Into the 60s [slides for Sept 28]

(a) Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (Chomsky 1964) pdf

(b) the first chapter of Aspects (Chomsky 1965)   pdf

(c) the first few pages of Sound Pattern of English (Chomsky & Halle 1965)  pdf


Oct 5, 12, 19, 26

4. Internalist Semantics: Philosophers and Diverging Roads [slides for October 5]

   (a) “Structure of a Semantic Theory” (Katz and Fodor, 1963) pdf

   (z) a separate topic that I won’t discuss in this setting, at least not in any detail:

        Katz and Postal (1964), An Integrated Theory of Linguistic Descriptions,and the rise/fall of “Generative Semantics”

In light of some questions after the Oct 5 session--and by email over the last few weeks--I thought it might be useful to post some slides about an initial model of intrinsic meanings. I'm planning to talk about this in connection with (9-11) below. But some people have wanted to know what I have in mind, in at least a little detail, about (i) cashing out Chomsky's references to Humboldt, (ii) preserving a tripartite conception of internalized grammars, pace Katz and Fodor, and (iii) the connection to the proposals in Conjoining Meanings. I don't want to break the flow of the live sessions and insert this into the discussion of the 1960s. But if people want to talk about this separately--before or after some session, using the slides a springboard--I'm happy to do that.

5. Losing Paradise: What’s Truth Got to do With It?
[slides for October 12]

   (a) “The Logical Form of Action Sentences” (Davidson, 1967a) pdf

   (b)  “Truth and Meaning” (Davidson 1967) pdf

6. Aliens and Logicians, Round One 
[slides for October 19]

   (a) “Language and Languages” (Lewis 1968/1975) pdf

   (b) “General Semantics” (Lewis 1970) pdf

7. Aliens and Logicians, Round Two 
[slides for October 26]

   (a) Lewis readings continues

   (b)  first part of “English as a Formal Language” (Montague 1970)

   (c) helpful ancillary reading: “Meaning and Semantics: (Harman 1974); “What Model Theoretic Semantics Cannot Do” (Lepore 1983); “Meaning and Formal Semantics in Generative Grammar” (Schiffer 2015)

Session 7 is going to spill over into Session 8. So to keep things more or less on track with the schedule, I'll post some narrated slides about Lewis and syntax (in lieu of going through this in detail during a live session) and some narrated introductory slides about Kripke and reference (for newcomers to this topic). My hope is that we'll get to Kripke in the second half of the Nov. 2 session, which will be review for those familiar with Naming and Necessity, which Kripke is reviewing in his first Locke Lecture. Then Nov. 9 can be for his other Locke Lectures, focusing on Lectures 2-4.

Nov 2, 9, 16, 23

Sessions 8-10. Reference and Fiction [Slides for November 2]    [Slides for November 9]    [Slides for November 16]

(a) excerpts from Reference and Existence, Kripke’s Locke Lectures (1973, published 2014)  pdf1  pdf2  pdf3&4  pdf5&6 

(b) Preface to Naming and Necessity (1980)
    I’ll assume familiarity with Naming and Necessity itself, which was presented in Kripke's 1970 lectures at Princeton.
    His first Locke Lecture provides a summary of the main points that will be directly relevant for us; and see these slides
(c) Donnellan, "Proper Names & Identifying Descriptions" pdf

Here are some slides about how to combine the semantics offered in Conjoining Meanings with a Kripke-style view about negative existentials:
AUX VP and Negative Existentials. I'll try to add some narration eventually.

11. Polysemy and Indexicality [slides for November 23]

(a) excerpts from Essays on Form and Interpretation and New Horizons (Chomsky 1977, 2000)

(b) excerpts from Putnam, “The Meaning of 'Meaning'” (1975)

(c) “Semantic Internalism” (Pietroski)  pdf

Nov 30, Dec. 7, Dec. 14

12. Quantifiers, Meanings, and Mental Representations [slides for November 30]

          If you want something to read, here is chapter seven of Conjoining Meanings. But it might make more sense to read it after the Nov 30 session.

13. Topic continued [slides for December 7], with a Part Two presentation from Tyler Knowlton (see here for a preview)

(a) “Interface Transparency and the Psychosemantics of Most” (Lidz. 2011) (a talk version from some years back)

(b) More recent work in this vein…currently under review or being written up by Knowlton

14. Last session: wrapping up Tyler's presentation (slides here), and some general points about quantifiers and representational format  [slides for December 14]