Many worlds of meaning: a framework for object reference
Our words seem connected with objects – some in our current perceptual experience and some beyond. Words seem to link us to cats, authors, cities and places, present, historical or fantastical. In this work, I try to describe this phenomenon of reference in a unified way: one story that can explain the role of words, of things in the world, and of the intermediary mental content often called ‘meaning’ as part of a greater mechanism common to all cases. This is an old and massive challenge and what I offer here is at most a framework for how that story could be told – one built from pieces already present in the formal, philosophical and (recently) behavioural sciences. I regiment the broader problem into a call for a theory of contact between lexical labels and objects in the world, a theory for information content attached to labels, and a theory of reference coordination between agents or communities. To construct this framework, I trace historical links between two very different projects: the logico-philosophical ‘classical semantics’ of Frege, Russell and Kripke and the more recent computational-psychological view of conceptual cognition based on generated hypotheses. I argue these two approaches can be seen as continuations of each other: one providing a logical blueprint for what the other already explains and describes. Specifically, I argue the information structures used by causal and/or probabilistic generative models of conceptual cognition could also constitute a theory of ‘meaning’ (in my terms: content) – one linked so closely to a given physical environment that contact and coordination, even as envisioned in classical semantics, will follow from the suitable creation, revision and communication of hypotheses anticipating that environment. I end by presenting two sets of empirical results, on effects from conceptual cognition (categorisation and feature inference) on choices and development of lexical labels in dialogue, relating language use to conceptual coordination.