The plan of Gunnar Júlíus Guðmundsson

Gunnar Julius Guðmundsson – Thesis plan

In my thesis I am looking into if expressivism can accommodate compositional semantics.  I do this with the hope of fixing issues with the expressive meaning of complex sentences known as the Frege-Geach problem.

Expressivism in ethics is the commitment to the following two claims. 1. The meaning of normative language is of different type than the meaning of non-normative language 2. The meaning of normative language is to be explained by what mental states the speaker is expressing when using normative language.

Expressivism falls under the family of non-descriptivism which is the more general theory that the meaning of normative sentence is not to be explained with what the sentence is about, but rather by what the speaker is doing when using it. The whole family of non-descriptivism is besieged by a problem known as the Frege-Geach problem. The Frege-Geach problem reveals how non-descriptivist’s treatment of meaning runs into problem with explaining meaning of sentences where normativity appears in complex contexts.

In (an over simplistic) but instructive way the problem (for expressivism) may be formulated thus

It is easy to assign a mental state to simple normative sentences as:

E1 It is wrong to torture cats

E2 it is wrong to torture this cat

A simplistic expressivist account might be that the speaker is expressing g a state of mind of disapproval of cat torturing in E1 and E2. But what about in the following complex sentence?

C1 Ii „it is wrong to torture cats“then „it is wrong to torture this cat“

Whatever mental state the speaker has in mind when he utters C1 it is not simply a „disapproval of cat torturing, “note that the expressivist cannot assign a completely new mental state to C1 that is not a composite of E1 and E2 in light of the granted validity of modus ponens (E1, if E1 then E2, ergo E2). If the original meaning given to E1 or E2 is changed too much in C1 then the argument becomes invalid (the fallacy of equation).

In my paper I will attempt to solve the Frege-Geach problem by exploring ways for how expressivism can meet what is called the compositional restraint on meaning. The compositional restraint states that any successful semantic theory must explain how the parts of a sentence contribute to its overall meaning. This constraint holds because we can, with finite words, create almost infinity of immediately understandable sentences and in the same way understand sentences we have never seen before.

Geach’s  original formulation of the problem and Schroeder´s instructive commentary:

Geach, Peter (1958) ´´Imperative and Deontic logic´ Analysis 13:49-56

–        (1960) ´Ascirptivism´ Philosophical review 09:22-225

–        (1965) ´´Assertions´ philosophical review 74:449-65

Schroeder, Mark (2010) Noncognitivism in Ethics NY: Routeledge, chapters 3, 6, 7

–        (2008) ´What is the Frege-Geach problem´ philosophy compass  3:703-720




The first meeting of the seminar is on Wed 1.2.2012 at 14-16 (U40 sh A110), where the goals, working order and dates are settled.


Phase I: Your topic; a short description

– plans in the blog by Wed 8.2

Phase I -meeting Wed 15.2 at ??

– outlining/describing topics; finding an instructor; choosing the work to be commented

Phase II: Deepening and developing the topic; setting the research question(s)/claims; survey of relevant literature

– February-April: individual discussions with Olli and/or instructor; writing of PSP

– plans in the blog by Sun 18.3

Phase II -meeting Tue 27.3 at ??

– presenting the plan, comments and discussion

Phase III: Final plan & working schedule

– plans in the blog by Sun 22.4

–  individual discussions with the instructor

Phase III -meeting  Wed 2.5 at ??

– presenting the final plan & working schedule; comments and discussion

Note! Remember to bring with you the Instruction contract and the PSP to the last meeting