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date: 22 April 2021

Natural Language Ontologylocked

  • Friederike MoltmannFriederike MoltmannCNRS-IHPST and NYU

Summary

Natural language ontology is a branch of both metaphysics and linguistic semantics. Its aim is to uncover the ontological categories, notions, and structures that are implicit in the use of natural language, that is, the ontology that a speaker accepts when using a language. Natural language ontology is part of “descriptive metaphysics,” to use Strawson’s term, or “naive metaphysics,” to use Fine’s term, that is, the metaphysics of appearances as opposed to foundational metaphysics, whose interest is in what there really is.

What sorts of entities natural language involves is closely linked to compositional semantics, namely what the contribution of occurrences of expressions in a sentence is taken to be. Most importantly, entities play a role as semantic values of referential terms, but also as implicit arguments of predicates and as parameters of evaluation.

Natural language appears to involve a particularly rich ontology of abstract, minor, derivative, and merely intentional objects, an ontology many philosophers are not willing to accept. At the same time, a serious investigation of the linguistic facts often reveals that natural language does not in fact involve the sort of ontology that philosophers had assumed it does.

Natural language ontology is concerned not only with the categories of entities that natural language commits itself to, but also with various metaphysical notions, for example the relation of part-whole, causation, material constitution, notions of existence, plurality and unity, and the mass-count distinction.

An important question regarding natural language ontology is what linguistic data it should take into account. Looking at the sorts of data that researchers who practice natural language ontology have in fact taken into account makes clear that it is only presuppositions, not assertions, that reflect the ontology implicit in natural language.

The ontology of language may be distinctive in that it may in part be driven specifically by language or the use of it in a discourse. Examples are pleonastic entities, discourse referents conceived of as entities of a sort, and an information-based notion of part structure involved in the semantics of plurals and mass nouns. Finally, there is the question of the universality of the ontology of natural language. Certainly, the same sort of reasoning should apply to consider it universal, in a suitable sense, as has been applied for the case of (generative) syntax.

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