Sunday, August 9, 2020

The History of Semantics at MIT

This blog post was inspired by a recent Facebook thread on my Facebook page discussing one of Barbara Partee’s talks on the history of formal semantics:

The history of semantics at MIT has not yet been written. But any such history will have to discuss the following threads and how they relate to one another:

Noam Chomsky’s evolving conception of I-language, and how semantics fits into that conception.

The central role that semantic judgments have played in justifying syntactic analyses from the beginning of generative syntax.

The impact of Katz and Postal 1964 (“An Integrated Theory of Linguistic Descriptions”) both on the work of MIT linguists and on people outside of MIT (such as David Lewis). A discussion of reactions to this work by various philosophers (e.g., Lepore 1983).

The rise and fall of generative semantics (including observations and proposals by Lakoff, McCawley, Postal, Ross and others), and its lasting influences.

The reaction at MIT (if any) to Richard Montague’s antagonism toward MIT syntax.

Distinctions between various philosophers (e.g., Davidson, Montague, Lewis) in the 60s and 70s working on formal semantics, including differences in foundational goals and technical proposals, and the way these differences fit with MIT syntax.

The events internal to the MIT Department of Linguistics leading up to the hiring of James Higginbotham, Richard Larson and Irene Heim (including the job announcements, shortlists, and discussions in the department).

The path that James Higginbotham followed to get into linguistics from philosophy, including his collaboration with Robert May.

The influence that James Higginbotham’s work had on the role of formal semantics in early Principles and Parameters syntax.

The lasting influence James Higginbotham’s work has had on the study of formal semantics and its relation to formal syntax.

MIT influences on Irene Heim’s dissertation, including work by Chomsky and May, and the teaching of Edwin Williams at UMASS.

The chronology of semantics courses at MIT (e.g., taken from the MIT course catalogue), including year taught, who taught them, course contents and student anecdotes.

The influence that MIT philosophers (such as Jerrold Katz, George Boolos, Sylvain Bromberger, Jerry Fodor and Robert Stalnaker) have had on MIT linguists.

The evolving role of semantics and syntax/semantics interface issues in MIT theses from the 60s to the 90s (e.g., Gruber 1965, Jackendoff 1969, Kroch 1974, Wilson 1974, Sag 1976, Reinhart 1976, May 1977, Linebarger 1980, Rothstein 1983, Schein 1986).

The influence of MIT syntax, semantics and syntax/semantics interface work on the writing of influential semantics textbooks including Heim and Kratzer 1998 and Larson and Segal 1995.

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