Category Archives: Gareth Evans

Selectors And Semantic vs. Syntactic Arguments

In case anyone wonders (“feel free to come to the point when you finally decide what it is”), the point of the following ramblings is to arrive at a place where I can make a distinction between semantic arguments and syntactic arguments.  The point of making this distinction will become clear (or not) in a later post.  Making the distinction is part of my attempting to put in my own words the argument that Tagalog lacks a subject.

In the previous post, I argued (or claimed, or made the completely unsupported, nay, spurious assertion, as the case may be) that the semantics of Maganda si Robert Pattinson can also be given by the following statement in the database language Tutorial D:


This statement includes the Selector PERSON(NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’)).  Let me unpack a bit what this is. Before I start, I’d like to point out that I THINK that it is  legal in Tutorial D to nest one selector inside another…

NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’) is a operator or function that takes the string ‘Robert Pattinson’ and selects one and only one name.  I will take the concept ‘selects’ as primitive here.  Any implementation of this selector in a physical computer would involve shuffling around ones and zeros until the computer spits out, i.e., returns, one member of the set NAME.  NAME would include strings, but subject to certain limitations.  For example, I assume a  name would have to be, at least, less than 1 billion characters long.  NAME would also include more than strings (that is, representations of text):  a name can be selected by a sound.  So NAME(<<some representation of a sound>>) could also select the name Robert Pattinson. (The reader will notice that I have not yet decided on how to represent, in the absence of a formal selector, a name as opposed to a string as opposed to the person himself…)

PERSON(NAME(Robert Pattinson)) would take the name selected by NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’) and return a member of the set PERSONS, i.e., Robert Pattinson himself.  I don’t know how a computer would implement this operator, but a human being would be implementing that operator in the following type of circumstance:  say, I am sitting in a restaurant.  Someone in the table next to me says:

 I hereby officially declare myself to belong to Team Edward because Robert Pattinson is just too gorgeous.

One part of that utterance, the part that I hear as the word ‘Robert Pattinson’, is the end point of a long causal chain that begins, say, when the parents of Robert Pattinson, after endless wrangling and indecision, finally agree to call their baby ‘Robert’; the doctor in the Maternity Ward crosses out the ‘baby boy’ in ‘baby boy Pattinson’ and writes in  ‘Robert’ on the birth certificate (call this the ‘baptismal event’) … endless events … a director or producer chooses the person named by ‘Robert Pattinson’ to play Edward Cullen in TWILIGHT … endless events…the person sitting at the table next to me sees TWILIGHT…he reads in a magazine he buys at the supermarket that Robert Pattinson played the part of Edward Cullen…he emits a set of soundwaves at the table next to me, which in turn trigger God-only-knows what processes in my brain, until I hear ‘…Robert Pattinson….’  That entire causal chain, ending up in the wetware of my brain, selects the person Robert Pattinson.  THAT’s the implementation of the selector PERSON(NAME(<<some representation of certain sound waves>>)).  Speaking metaphorically and a bit picturesquely, the selector spits out, or returns, Robert Pattinson himself, the flesh-and-blood Robert Pattinson who lives in (I would say ‘Valencia, California’, but that is where Taylor Lautner lives)…. Speaking literally, the selector selects Robert Pattinson himself.

(See Saul Kripke, who apparently never explicitly endorsed this causal theory of reference aka selection.  Gareth Evans would apparently deem this theory, as stated by me, to be naive, but it seems perfectly intuitive to me.)

Invocations of selectors produce literals (more accurately, I guess, are literals).  So whatever else Robert Pattinson himself may be, he is a literal value.

Let me take the liberty of allowing selector invocations as arguments supplied to the parameters of functions, so that we can replace x with the argument PERSON(NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’)) in the function x EQUALS x to produce a true proposition.  Below, I have identified, ala Chisholm, propositions with states of affairs in the world:  here, with Robert Pattinson being identical with Robert Pattinson.  This proposition gives us the semantics of the utterance “Robert Pattinson equals Robert Pattinson.”

I will therefore call the invocation of PERSON(NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’)) a semantic argument.  By contrast, the invocation of NAME(‘Robert Pattinson’), occuring inside an utterance, spoken or written, is a syntactic argument.  In this way, I make sense of the semantic arguments vs. syntactic arguments distinction I puzzled over in a previous post.

I do not know, of course, whether this is the distinction that Beatrice Santorini wanted to make.

I will end by making another homage to Plato’s SYMPOSIUM, according to which interest in Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Kellan Lutz et al ultimately leads to interest in the Relational Algebra, and from there, to the Form of Beauty itself:


Wow, I love that slightly-unshaven look…(the reader may  hear a rapturous sigh…)

Now, having briefly lapsed into a lower form of eros, I will go back to eros for the Relational Algebra in connection with Semantics….

Update:  After hitting the publish button, I saw this quote from the first Jewish Prime Minister of Great Britain:

The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.

Benjamin Disraeli

Or blog about it at length.