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Discourse semantics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U009-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 14, 2024, from

Article Summary

Discourse and its interpretation have interested philosophers since ancient times, and have been studied in different areas of philosophy such as rhetoric, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of literature. Discourse has attracted interest from philosophers working in the continental tradition, and it received considerable attention in the 1980s from analytic philosophers, philosophers of language, linguists, cognitive scientists and computer scientists; within these fields a formal, logical analysis of discourse interpretation, or discourse semantics, has emerged.

Discourse semantics arose in an attempt to solve certain problems that affected formal theories of meaning for single sentences. These problems had to do with the interpretation of pronouns and other ‘anaphoric’ elements in language. A detailed examination of the data showed that the meaning of an individual sentence in a discourse could depend upon information given by previous sentences in the discourse. To analyse this dependence, discourse semantics developed a formal analysis of a discourse context and of the interaction between the meaning of a sentence and the discourse context in which it is to be interpreted. The essential idea of discourse semantics is that the meaning of a sentence is a relation between contexts. The ‘input’ discourse context furnishes the information needed to interpret the anaphoric elements in the sentence; the information conveyed by the sentence when added to the input context yields a new, or ‘output’, discourse context that can serve to interpret the next sentence in the discourse.

Citing this article:
Asher, Nicholas. Discourse semantics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U009-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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