Meaning: The dynamic turn

Meaning: The dynamic turn. Ed. by Jaroslav Peregrin. (Current research in the semantics/pragmatics interface 12.) Oxford: Elsevier, 2003. Pp. x, 277. ISBN 0080441874. $116.95 (Hb).

Reviewed by Chaoqun Xie, Fujian Normal University

The meaning of meaning has been and still is a central concern for scholars of various persuasions, including those in philosophy, semantics, and pragmatics. Recently, more and more effort has been devoted to exploring the dynamics of meaning. Is meaning dynamic? If yes, how is dynamic meaning possible? Many scholars have reached the consensus that meaning is and should be dynamic, especially when it is discussed in certain social-interaction contexts, which certainly involve various complex factors. Meaning: The dynamic turn, however, largely focuses on another question: Why is meaning dynamic? This book adopts a very formal approach to a very dynamic topic.

This volume, which developed out of papers presented to a workshop held in Prague in September 2001, consists of a general introduction followed by three parts. In the introduction, editor Jaroslav Peregrin provides some background information and briefs the chapters to follow. Part 1 is devoted to foundational issues of dynamic semantics. In ‘Structural properties of dynamic reasoning’, Johan van Benthem argues for dynamic inference in communication by means of a concrete representation theorem. In ‘Construction by description in discourse representation’, Noor van Leusen and Reinhard Muskens deal with the question of declarativity versus procedurality in dynamic theories and present a view on linguistic processing. Richard Breheny’s contribution, ‘On the dynamic turn in the study of meaning and interpretation’, merits particular attention. Breheny discusses three points: (i) dynamic and nondynamic processes are distinguished by a focus on process, (ii) the empirical issue of underdetermination and compositionality is not adequately tackled by current dynamic approaches, and (iii) the current dynamic paradigm cannot solve the underdetermination of context adequately and properly. The first part ends with Wolfram Hinzen’s elaboration of what ‘Real dynamics’ really means.

The four chapters in Part 2, ‘Syntax, semantics and discourse’, focus on dynamic approaches in various areas of the theory of language. While Ruth Kempson, Wilfried Meyer-Viol, and Masayuki Otsuka deal with the dynamics of syntax, Klaus von Heusinger talks about ‘The double dynamics of description in discourse representation’. Petr Sgall’s chapter is devoted to dynamics within the sentence and dynamics in discourse. Timothy Childers and Vladimír Svoboda argue that the meaning of a prescriptive sentence is hard to tell ‘unless we understand how it works in various normative language games’ (198). In ‘Imperative negation and dynamic semantics’, Berislav Žarnić defends the view that ‘an imperative and its negation are equipotent with respect to their binding force and layers of informational content’ (201).

Part 3, Semantic games’, includes three chapters: ‘Dynamic game semantics’ by Tapio Janasik and Gabriel Sandu, ‘About games and substitution’ by Manuel Rebuschi, and ‘In defense of (some) verificationism: Verificationism and game-theoretical semantics’ by Louise Vigean.

This collection of papers represents the state of the art in the ongoing discussion of dynamic semantics, casting some new light upon the nature of meaning. Written by a team of experts, this volume is of high-quality, with arguments that are largely convincing, and it should be most welcomed by those with a keen interest in logic, formal semantics, or formal pragmatics. I have one reservation, though. When I first read the title of this book, I was full of expectations, looking forward to knowing more about the whats, hows, and whys of the dynamic turn of meaning in real-life social interaction. I was a bit disappointed, however, upon reading it; I am not sure how dynamic meaning can be realized or how far the catchphrase ‘dynamic meaning’ can go if it resorts to formalization procedures, and if it still holds on to the somewhat rigid and prescriptive Chomskyan paradigm, disregarding ‘the view that linguistic meanings are externally fixed by language-world relations, language use, or by beliefs attached to utterances, jointly with a level of representation’ (117). Although there is, given the computational nature of mind as advocated by scholars of artificial intelligence, some element of truth in saying ‘linguistic meaning derives solely from the internal and naturally necessary workings of the mind’ (177), the more immediate and important question is: What is taken into account when the mind is doing computations and working out linguistic meaning? ‘Real dynamics’ worked out within the tradition of generative grammar cannot be real at all. Finally, I am not sure if the question of why meaning is dynamic has been adequately answered in this volume.