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Volume 21, 2005

Compositionality, Concepts and Representations I

Henry Jackman
Pages 5-19

Descriptive Atomism and Foundational Holism
Semantics between the Old Testament and the New

While holism and atomism are often treated as mutually exclusive approaches to semantic theory, the apparent tension between the two usually results from running together distinct levels of semantic explanation. In particular, there is no reason why one can’t combine an atomistic conception of what the semantic values of our words are (one’s “descriptive semantics”), with a holistic explanation of why they have those values (one’s “foundational semantics”). Most objections to holism can be shown to apply only to holistic versions of descriptive semantics, and do not tell against any sorts of holistic foundational semantics. As Davidson’s work will be used to illustrate, by clearly distinguishing foundational and descriptive semantics, one can capture the most appealing features of both holism and atomism.

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