Philosophy Semantic Minimalism
Agustin Vicente, Fernando Martínez Manrique
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0155


Semantic minimalism is primarily a position about the semantic content of sentences. It is defined by the thesis that sentences have a truth-conditional or fully propositional content mostly independent of contextual factors. It limits the contribution of context to the saturation of a narrow class of indexical expressions. Semantic minimalism thus has contextualism as its main (but not sole) opponent, contextualism being characterized by the thesis that the bearers of propositional content are utterances, not sentences, given that the semantic information carried by sentences fails to determine a truth-conditional content. Semantic minimalism is committed to an orthodox view on semantic compositionality, according to which, barring explicit indexicals, the content of a sentential expression is a function of the stable semantic values (literal meanings) of its constituents and the syntax of the sentence. Semantic minimalism is thus able to draw a neat boundary between semantics and pragmatics: semantics has as its focus the truth-conditional content of sentences, while pragmatics is concerned with the various uses speakers make of language in communicative exchanges.

General Overviews

Most overviews pertaining to semantic minimalism present the issues intertwined with more general concerns of the semantics-versus-pragmatics debate—for example, Stojanovic 2008, which is a good introduction to the different positions surrounding the debate, or Korta and Perry 2006, in which the exposition dedicated to semantic minimalism and its opponents is developed only in a subsection. Borg 2007 and Cappelen and Lepore 2005 offer more specific overviews, even if centered on their authors’ own conceptions of minimalism. Borg 2009 is a concise but very good account of semantic minimalism. Jaszczolt 2007 also presents a helpful overview from a more neutral point of view. Bezuidenhout 2017 is an excellent survey of the debate between semantic minimalists and contextualists along several dimensions. All the introductions that open the books and journals listed under Anthologies are also typically useful.

  • Bezuidenhout, Anne. “Contextualism and Semantic Minimalism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Pragmatics. Edited by Yan Huang, 21–46. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199697960.013.31

    Presents three ways of casting the debate: from a processing/psychological point of view; from the perspective of a formal theory of meaning; and from a philosophical and conceptual perspective.

  • Borg, Emma. “Minimalism versus Contextualism in Semantics.” In Context-Sensitivity and Semantic Minimalism: New Essays on Semantics and Pragmatics. Edited by Gerhard Preyer and Georg Peter, 339–359. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Outlines the minimalist and contextualist positions, paying special attention to the defining features of minimalism. The author contends that Cappelen and Lepore’s minimalism turns out not to be minimal enough.

  • Borg, Emma. “Semantic Minimalism.” In The Routledge Pragmatics Encyclopedia. Edited by Louise Cummings, 423–425. London: Routledge, 2009.

    A 1,000-word, very clear explanation of the main tenets of semantic minimalism.

  • Cappelen, Herman, and Ernie Lepore. “A Tall Tale: In Defense of Semantic Minimalism and Speech Act Pluralism.” In Contextualism in Philosophy: Knowledge, Meaning, and Truth. Edited by Gerhard Preyer and Georg Peter, 197–219. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    A bare-bones presentation of the main points addressed in their book Insensitive Semantics: A Defense of Semantic Minimalism and Speech Act Pluralism (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005).

  • Jaszczolt, Katarzyna M. “On Being Post-Gricean.” In Interpreting Utterances: Pragmatics and Its Interfaces. Edited by Randi A. Nilsen, Nana A. A. Amfo, and Kaja Borthen, 21–38. Oslo, Norway: Novus, 2007.

    A clear account of the debate between contextualism and minimalism in semantics, which also explores the perspectives on coexistence between both positions. Jaszczolt also devotes some attention to her own view, which she calls “Default Semantics.” She has an even shorter piece on “post-Gricean pragmatics” in The Routledge Pragmatics Encyclopedia (see Borg 2009).

  • Korta, Kepa, and John Perry. “Pragmatics.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2006.

    A comprehensive introduction to the field of philosophical pragmatics. It is good as an introduction to Grice’s work and post-Gricean developments, the proximate precursors of the current debate. However, the space devoted to current semantic minimalism is a bit scarce. Available by subscription.

  • Stojanovic, Isidora. “The Scope and the Subtleties of the Contextualism/Literalism/Relativism Debate.” Language and Linguistics Compass 2.6 (2008): 1171–1188.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00086.x

    A good introduction to a variety of positions concerning semantic content, with a special focus on context-sensitive expressions. Helpful as a clarification of the very different “isms” currently in the debate.

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