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Volume 11, 1998

Cognitive Semantics II

Arnold Silverberg
Pages 216-244

Semantic Externalism
A Response to Chomsky

In this essay I respond to criticisms of semantic externalism that Noam Chomsky has presented in several recent publications. In the first section of the essay I present reasons to think that there are virtues to both semantic externalism and to semantic internalism, and that these two views are compatible. Linguistic items and intentional phenomena might have semantic content which is determined by factors external to their possessor, and also have semantic content which is determined by factors that are internal. In the second section I respond to Chomsky's argument that the cognitive sciences are internalist, and hence semantic reference has no place in naturalistic inquiry. I argue that the cognitive sciences are not exclusively internalist, that they are significantly externalist. In my discussion I attend mainly to the case of scientific studies of vision. In the third section I deal with issues specifically concerning language. I counter Chomsky's arguments that semantic reference can play no role in the scientific study of language; I argue that it in fact does play a role in significant developments that should be regarded as belonging to the scientific study of language. I also present considerations in defense of semantic externalism with regard to proper names and natural kind terms, and in defense of there being a social factor to semantic content.