Knowledge of Meaning

Knowledge of Meaning

An Introduction to Semantic Theory

By Richard K. Larson and Gabriel M. A. Segal

A Bradford Book





Current textbooks in formal semantics are all versions of, or introductions to, the same paradigm in semantic theory: Montague Grammar. Knowledge of Meaning is based on different assumptions and a different history. It provides the only introduction to truth- theoretic semantics for natural languages, fully integrating semantic theory into the modern Chomskyan program in linguistic theory and connecting linguistic semantics to research elsewhere in cognitive psychology and philosophy. As such, it better fits into a modern graduate or undergraduate program in linguistics, cognitive science, or philosophy. Furthermore, since the technical tools it employs are much simpler to teach and to master, Knowledge of Meaning can be taught by someone who is not primarily a semanticist.

Linguistic semantics cannot be studied as a stand-alone subject but only as part of cognitive psychology, the authors assert. It is the study of a particular human cognitive competence governing the meanings of words and phrases. Larson and Segal argue that speakers have unconscious knowledge of the semantic rules of their language, and they present concrete, empirically motivated proposals about a formal theory of this competence based on the work of Alfred Tarski and Donald Davidson. The theory is extended to a wide range of constructions occurring in natural language, including predicates, proper nouns, pronouns and demonstratives, quantifiers, definite descriptions, anaphoric expressions, clausal complements, and adverbs.

Knowledge of Meaning gives equal weight to philosophical, empirical, and formal discussions. It addresses not only the empirical issues of linguistic semantics but also its fundamental conceptual questions, including the relation of truth to meaning and the methodology of semantic theorizing. Numerous exercises are included in the book.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262121934 662 pp. | 8 in x 9 in


$75.00 X ISBN: 9780262621007 662 pp. | 8 in x 9 in

Not for sale on the Indian subcontinent.


  • one in recent decades has written a book of this magnitude about the semantics of natural language. Certainly nothing available today matches this volume in depth, precision, and coherence.

    Zoltan Szabo

    The Philosophical Review

  • This is a remarkable book, for it introduces AND advances its subject. The approach to the semantics of natural languages that is the book's subject is the broadly Davidsonian truth-as-theory-as-meaning-theory program, and as a high-powered and wide-ranging introduction to that program, the book will be of value both to students of philosophy and students of linguistics. At the same time, it arguably advances the most novel and promising version of the Davidsonian program.

    Stephen Schiffer

    Professor of Philosophy, CUNY Graduate Center

  • There is nothing like Knowledge of Meaning available. For the first time, it brings together the work being done on the semantics of natural language by philosophers and linguists in a way that makes it accessible to students and workers in both areas. It is clear and well-organized; the exercises make it suitable for courses, or for use as a self-teaching project. The book surveys alternative approaches, but the authors take a stand where this is appropriate, which gives the book a unity that it could not otherwise achieve. All philiosopher interested in the philosophy of language need to know what is made available in this book, and linguists will learn what motivates philosophers.

    Donald Davidson

    Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of California at Berkeley

  • this is a very impressive achievement. Presupposing limited knowledge, Larson and Segal carry the reader step-by-step to the outer limits of understanding and inquiry in the study of language and mind, skillfully integrating perspectives of philosophy and linguistics, and showing that limited techincal apparatus has surprising reach. It is a lucid and highly informative study, easily accessible to beginning students and the general reader, with results and insights from which even specialists will profits.

    Noam Chomsky

    Professor, Department of Linguistics and Philisophy. MIT

  • This volume provides a unique bridge between the philosophy of language and mind and empirical semantic theory. Besides containing a very full development of a number of basic issues, it clarifies a sense in which formal semantics, like synta and phonology, deserves to form an integral part of the cognitive sciences. In plan and in detail, an impressive achievement.

    James Higginbotham

    Professor of General Linguistics, University of Oxford