Extension x Intension: semantic problems

Luis Rosa

It is common we to find, in semantic analysis of language, a division between two kinds of categories related to names, predicates, definite descriptions and statements. I’m talking about the extension/intension categories. If we don’t want to speak of categories, we can speak of ‘entities’, this time in a ontological point of view (this goes for you Marcos). So, the two types of entities referred in the semantic analysis would be the following ones: i) the reference or designatum, and ii) the sense, concept, proposition or, as commonly used, meaning.

It’s usually said that the locus classicus of such semantic distinctions is Frege’s paper Übber Sinn und Bedeutung. But even before this famous paper we already find similar distinctions, as in Stuart Mill’s distinction between denotation and conotation. It seems that the philosohers in general agree that one just will be succesfull in semantic analysis, if doesn’t mix or confuse those categories.  If isn’t right to assert that the two categories differ in nature, it’s certainly right to assert that they differ in semantic role/function.

It is, of course, possible (and perhaps plausible) to desagree that the distinction in question is philosophically important. One can even deny that entities like reference or meaning do exists. Quine, for example, sustains that we can talk of meaningfull statements, or of synonymy among statements, without arching with the consequences of an ontological commitment on entities called ‘meanings’. In other words, Quine is saying that an expression doesn’t need to name something to be meaningfull.

In theories like that of Quine we can find some confusion (in our own thinking, say). Besides the fact the we find here a lot of terms that, supposedly, stand for the same thing, we have still two ways of theorizing: a semantic-functional way and a ontological way. This corresponds to the two modes of speech I referred two at the beginning of this post.

On the wide range of terms philosophers use to treat questions as the extension/intension distinction, we can note that each philosopher has a certain preference: one calls the reference ‘meaning’, other calls it ‘denotation’; one prefer to call the statement sense ‘proposition’, other ‘thinking’; etc. For besides this disagreement among such philosophers, we find a similar role/function of these terms in the their varied theories. Easily we can find in these philosophers’ texts statements as: “I’ll call here ‘nominatum’ the object a certain expression denotes”; “The employed sense to our term is the same Frege employed to the term ‘reference'”. etc.

This variety of terms used in semantic theories, however, doesn’t need to be reason of confusions. In most cases, philosophers are not illustrious on the meaning or sense of terms as ‘proposition’, ‘reference’ and ‘meaning’.  But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a set of terms used by these philosophers that fall under the same categorie. And the most right attempt would be to speak in the extension/intension categories.

What is the difference of speaking, in this case, of ‘sense’ and ‘reference’ on one side, and ‘intension’ and ‘extension’ on the other? Well, it can be said that, as we use such pairs of terms, possibly it cannot have a difference strictly among their uses. I want then to propose that, it is used in a coherent way the first pair of terms, sense/reference, in a ontological sense, and the second pair of terms, intension/extension, in a semantic/functional sense. It’s under this thesis that makes sense to say that the ontological terms ‘sense’ and ‘reference’ fall under the intension/extension categories. Again, it’s under this thesis that makes sense to say that we can regard such distinctions not only from an ontological point of view, but also from a semantic/functional point of view.

So, to treat of these distinctions from a ontological point of view is to elaborate a theory that tries to justify the existence of such and such entity. This justification is not always put in a clear way. It can be confused with the exhibition of the semantic terms explanatory value. That is comprehensible. Let us say that a philosopher that analyzes the entities involved in the significance, understanding and verification of terms process, don’t have to prove the existence of the external world so only for his fact to defend, for instance, that the proper names and the assertive sentences have a objective reference.

But:  how can we find an answer about the validity and truthfulness of these distinctions? We can answer, with Russell: stating some logical puzzles and paradoxes. These i’ll present in the next post.


One comment

  1. Pardieiro da Tojeira · · Responder


    Please, continue to do what you do in that gorgeous way…

    Congrats on the blog!

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