I'm not done KISSing yet

🕑 3 min • 👤 Thomas Graf • 📆 July 25, 2019 in Discussions • 🏷 methodology, semantics

I just got back from MOL (Mathematics of Language) in Toronto, and much to my own surprise I actually got to talk some more about KISS theories there. As you might recall, my last post tried to made a case for more simple accounts that try to handle only one phenomenon but do so exceedingly well without the burden of machinery that is needed for other phenomena. My post only listed two examples for syntax as I was under the impression that this is a rare approach in linguistics, so I didn’t dig much deeper for examples. But at MOL I saw Yoad Winter give a beautiful KISS account of presupposition projection (here’s the paper version). That’s when it hit me: in semantics, KISS is pretty much the norm!

Generalized quantifier theory, presupposition projection, degrees, modality, all of those are usually studied in isolation of each other. It wouldn’t occur to a semanticist to require that they all should neatly fit into one unified theory. Yes, this has started to change in the last 25 years with the rise of the syntax-semantics interface, which imports the monolithic nature of syntactic proposals. But there’s still a healthy residue of single-purpose proposals that use whatever formal machinery is most convenient and insightful. Define a partial order here, a function there, put it all together with a neat principle on top, and there’s your account of phenomenon X. Then keep revising as new data crops up.

I mentioned this to Yoad, and he offered some very insightful comments as to why this might be the case. One factor may be the historical dominance of grammar fragments, which goes all the way back to Montague. Grammar fragments encourage you to focus on one specific aspect and explore it in detail without getting too entangled in other things. It may also just be due to the sociology of the field, with semantics also attracting a fair share of philosophers and logicians. These groups don’t have the same linguistic training, so they’ll naturally gravitate towards phenomena that don’t require you to go all the way down the linguistic rabbit hole. And there’s probably many other reasons for this (Yoad mentioned some others that I can’t reconstruct from memory). But the main point is that semantics has a long tradition of KISS theories.

Now that I’ve come to this realization, I can see why Omer worries that KISS approaches would lead to dull descriptivism. I have to admit that many semantic analyses are pretty dull to me. But I don’t think this is due to KISS itself but rather the neglect of key issues such as computability and cognition as well as universals and typological variation. Generalized quantifier theory is a nice example that one can be KISS and still address these issues. In addition, semantics doesn’t seem to be working towards unified stories or principles that tie these domains together. Remember, I said that KISS accounts shouldn’t be self-contained forever, you want to use them as a stepping stone towards abstraction and unification. I don’t see much of that in semantics. For instance, algebras and relational structures are used in many places, but where’s the work on universal properties that these structures have to exhibit? While I’m not the most avid reader of the semantics literature, work along those lines should be considered so important that it is impossible to miss even for outsiders.

So, yeah, I can see why one would look at semantics and conclude that its style of inquiry, including KISS theories, must be kept as far away from the rest of linguistics as possible. But that doesn’t mean that KISS invariably has to lead to this state of affairs, even within semantics. In fact, I got a little KISS proposal for semantics that I’m very fond of. As yet another exhibit of the virtues of KISS, I’ll talk about that in my next post.