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Journal of Philosophy, Inc.

Paradoxes of Grounding in Semantics

Author(s): Hans G. Herzberger
Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 67, No. 6 (Mar. 26, 1970), pp. 145-167
Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc.
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U T NDER the Peano-Ramseydoctrine of parceling out the
logical paradoxes into those pertaining to mathematics
and those pertaining to language, set theory and semantics
have by and large gone their separate ways. And yet it can hardly be
denied that the known paradoxes of set theory and semantics do
after all have some common structure. The case has been forcefully
presented by James Thomson for three of these paradoxes: Grel-
ling's and Richard's (which are semantic) and Russell's (which is
not).' According to Thomson, each of these paradoxes can be under-
stood in terms of a certain result in the theory of relations:
Ti (Thomson): Nothing can bear any relation R to exactly
those things which do not bear R to themselves.
Russell's and Grelling's paradoxes are special cases of (Ti), putting
membership and satisfaction respectively for the abstract relation
R; and Richard's paradox comes about by further transformation of
the latter case. Having seen this much common structure across the
two lists of paradoxes, one is prompted to search for more and to
speculate on the possibility of a general and abstract account to
cover them all.
The very conception of a structural theory of these paradoxes
forces certain comparative inquiries that promise to benefit both
disciplines. Since diagonal results like (Ti) apply to any field, it is
noteworthy that some of their applications are paradoxical while
others are not. Nor does there seem to be an exact correspondence
of cases even across disciplines infected with paradox, like set theory
and semantics. When the two lists of their known paradoxes are con-
1J. F. Thomson, "On Some Paradoxes," in R. J. Butler, ed., Analytical Philos-
ophy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962).


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fronted with each other, certain discrepancies become apparent.

On the one hand, the most prominent of semantic paradoxes (the
Liar and its variations) have no full-scale counterpart in set theory,
although their structural analogues therein (the "extraordinary"
classes) have seemed perplexing.2 This family of paradoxes and near-
paradoxes arises from certain kinds of "groundlessness" up for dis-
cussion in section II. On the other side, set theory has paradoxes of
"groundedness" whose semantic analogues have gone unremarked.3
This failure of correspondence will be repaired in section in, ad-
vancing one step the program of a structural theory of paradox.
Within this program the fact that some interpretations of diag-
onal results are paradoxical while others are not calls for explana-
tion. Linguistic expressions figure in both set theory and semantics,
having a subtle and complex relation to sets in the one theory, and
to concepts and statements in the other. In semantics, which is the
primary concern here, the paradoxes evidently owe their perplexing
character to certain limitations inherent in any language, both with
regard to expressive capacity and with regard to expressive struc-
The obverse side of a paradox is a theory adequate to cope with
it. Here it must be acknowledged that there is hardly anything in
semantics to compare with the rich and varied development of
axiomatic set theory. Perhaps the semantic paradoxes have seemed
less urgent, because a hierarchy of levels avoids them in connection
with formalized languages, and the problems were for a long time
abandoned in connection with natural languages.' Semantics of nat-
ural language has hardly emerged from its naive or "Cantorian"
phase. One striking indication of this is the widespread assumption
2 Since D. Mirimanoff's "Les Antinomies de Russell et de Burali-Forti et le
probU~me fondamental de la theorie des ensembles," L'Enseignement Mathema-
tique, xrx (1917), there has been a tendency in axiomatic set theory to banish
extraordinary sets by a special axiom of "regularity." I am indebted to Thomson
for pressing the case of grounding as a link between set theory and semantics.
3 The paradox of grounded sets was first discovered by Mirimanoff (op. cit.)
and reclaimed by Shen Yuting, "Paradox of the Class of All Grounded Classes,"
Journal of Symbolic Logic, xviIn, 2 June 1953): 114.
4 The watchword here is Tarski's declaration: "The breakdown of all previous
attempts leads us to suppose that there is no satisfactory way of solving our
problem ... I now abandon the attempt to solve our problem for the language of
everyday life and restrict myself henceforth entirely to formalized languages," pp.
164-165 of "The Concept of Truth in Formalized Languages" in Logic, Semantics,
Metamathematics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956). Quite recently the subject has
been taken up again in connection with "free logic"; see B. C. van Fraassen,
"Presupposition, Implication, and Self-reference," this JOURNAL, LXV, 5 (March 7,
1968): 136-152, and references therein. Let me note here my indebtedness to van
Fraassen for an improvement in the formulation of "groundlessness" in section ii.

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that the conceptual systems underlying natural languages are "uni-

versal" in much the sense formulated by Tarski:
A characteristic feature of colloquial language (in contrast to various
scientific languages) is its universality. It would not be in harmony
with the spirit of this language if in some other language a word oc-
curred which could not be translated into it; it could be claimed that
'if we can speak meaningfully about anything at all, we can also speak
about it in colloquial language' (164).
This universality thesis, which Tarski offers by way of diagnosis of
the semantic paradoxes, puts forward a striking claim which, if the
means be available, deserves being put to the test. In section v I pro-
pose to develop those means, and to show that universality cannot
be "the spirit" of natural language, inasmuch as every conceptual
framework suffers the same kind of inherent limitations on expres-
sive capacity that have long been recognized in connection with lan-
guages built upon quantification theory. This result, though reached
by an elementary argument, has certain unsettling consequences for
semantic theory and for the philosophical issue of the relation be-
tween language and thought.
Some of the common ground between set theory and semantics can
be studied by way of a correspondence between sentences and classes.
Consider the Liar paradox, in its simplest form (Lukasiewicz) in-
volving a sentence which, like (1), purports to deny its own truth:
1. (1) is not true.
Sentences that are about themselves in this way are analogous to
self-membered classes. Momentarily conceding sense to the notion
of aboutness, each sentence has a certain domain. For a simple sen-
tence whose main verb is intransitive, the domain comprises every-
thing that satisfies its underlying subject term.5 For some examples,
(1) has for its domain the unit set whose sole member is the sen-
tence (1) itself; (2) has for its domain the set of those sentences ap-
pearing on the board; and (3) has for its domain the whole written
corpus of Gertrude Stein:
2. Some of the sentences on the board are astonishing.
3. Much of Gertrude Stein's writing is enigmatic.
More complex sentences built up from connectives, transitive verbs,
5 Where underlying grammatical subject is taken in the sense of N. Chomsky,
Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1965), with articles
and quantifiers dropped.

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adverbial phrases, and the like will have correspondingly complex

domains. Thus (4) has for its domain an ordered pair of classes: the
terms of Sanskrit first and the expressions of Basic English second:
4. Certain Sanskrit terms defy translation into Basic English.
The general notion of a domain is more readily indicated than ex-
plicated, but the analysis to follow depends on no problematic cases,
and ultimately proves independent of any particular explication of
The relation between a sentence S and its domain D(S) is sensi-
tive to some of the same factors that are operative in general set
theory. In case some members of D(S) themselves are sentences, they
in turn will have their own domains, which collectively can be
designated D2(S): the aggregate of the domains of all sentences in
the domain of S. And it can happen that some members of D2(S)
are sentences, and so on. Any sentence for which this process fails
to terminate will be called "groundless":
'S is groundless' abbreviates 'for each integer k, Dk(S) is non-
For a case in point, (1) is groundless, being itself a member of Dk(l)
for each k; and so is (2), if it happens to be one of the sentences on
the board. With a self-conscious writer like Gertrude Stein, there
is no assurance that (3) is grounded; but (4) at any rate is grounded,
given the character of Basic English.
Groundless sentences, like groundless classes, are pathological;
to adapt Mirimanoff's term, they are "extraordinary." Some of
them give rise to paradox, which is to say they collide with cher-
ished conceptual principles like the abstraction principle of naive
set theory (that every condition determines a set) or its counterpart
in naive semantics (that every sentence determines a statement).6
In both set theory and semantics there is a temptation to banish
everything extraordinary by some "grounding" axiom that denies
groundless classes the status of sets or denies groundless sentences
the status of statements. In set theory, grounding requirements have
wide currency; in semantics they have been widely honored though
6 There is much terminologicalvarianceover this principle, depending on how
the relation between sentences and truth values is viewed. Some would prefer
'expresses'or 'conveys'or 'is' or 'can be used to make' over 'determines',and some
would prefer 'proposition'or 'truth value' over 'statement'.In whatever terminol-
ogy, this is the naive principle of bivalence (see van Fraassen,op. cit.).

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seldom acknowledged, and hardly brought to the level of explicit

formulation.7 A first effort in this direction might read:
Semantic Grounding Condition: Any given sentence deter-
mines a statement only if it is grounded or is nonsemantic
(in the sense of incorporating in purely referential position
no semantic term).8
In going beyond the cases involved in actual antinomies, such a
condition would do some justice to the facts of language, encom-
passing as it does "positive" along with "negative" cases, "mixed"
as well as "pure" cases, and "regressions" along with "cycles"; these
contrasts will be taken in turn.
First, (5) is a positive case by contrast with (1):
5. (5) is true.
and it has commonly been urged that such positive variants of the
Liar, while responsible for no contradiction, are fully as patho-
logical as the negative forms which they resemble in being both
semantic and groundless.
A "mixed" example is provided by Buridan's sophistical proof of
the existence of God.9 Suppose that a certain board contains just the
two sentences:

6. God exists.
7. None of the sentences on the board are true.

Then (7) is groundless, but actual contradiction can be avoided

by embracing theology. The same grounding condition which cir-
cumvents contradiction in connection with (1), deals appropriately
7 In set theory the classical formulation is von Neumann's Fundierungsaxiom;
in informalsemanticsthe doctrine that semantictermsare "parasitic"accordswith
a grounding requirement,as does the separationbetween language and metalan-
guage in formal semantics.Early formulationsof the informal semantic doctrine
can be found in Ramsey'sessay "Factsand Propositions"(1927) reprinted in his
The Foundations of Mathematics and Other Essays, and in C. H. Langford's review
of a paper by H. Behmann, Journal of Symbolic Logic, ii (1937),p. 92; compare
also G. Ryle's"Heterologicality,"Analysis,xix (1951).
8 Purely referential positions of terms are those subject to the substitutivity of
identity, according to W. V. Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge,Mass.: MIT
and Wiley Press, 1960). Semantic terms are those in the family of 'true', 'satis-
fies',and 'denotes'.
9 Compare Sophism 12, John Buridan: Sophisms on Meaning and Truth, T. K.
Scott,ed. (New York:Appleton-Century-Crofts,
1966),p. 206.

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with cases like (7) that are pathological while falling short of
Finally there are cases involving a vicious semantic regress but
no vicious circle. All the cases so far have involved a sentence that
belongs to its own ancestral domain. On a deeper analysis, however,
it is not the cyclical character of these cases that renders them patho-
logical; and it is a virtue of the grounding condition that it brings
this out. Consider that all the cases so far suffer from "unconsum-
mated reference" 10 much like the bureaucratic regress in which
each clerk endlessly refers you to the next to settle your accounts.
Such regresses are pathological whether cyclic or not. For a seman-
tic example, imagine an endless sequence of sentences, all distinct,
whose representative form (for the nth sentence of the sequence) is:
8. Sna1 is true.
Here each sentence of the sequence belongs to the domain of its
predecessor. Any natural language is bound to admit regressions of
this sort, and sentences belonging to such regresses are semantically
pathological in having their content somehow left undetermined.
There is something schematic in the concept of truth, which re-
quires filling in. Failing that, sentences of the type of (8) lose their
comprehensibility. Poincar6 and Russell took the vicious circle to
be fundamental for the logical paradoxes; 11 but examples of the
type of (8) indicate that the pathological character of those para-
doxes is due rather to the vicious regress. It remains true that strict
antinomy is known only for the cyclic cases; however, in accordance
with the diagnosis of "positive" and "mixed" variants of the Liar
paradox, contradiction is viewed here as but the extreme symptom
of semantic pathology.
On account of all these cases, one can readily become enamored of
some semantic grounding condition. As Quine puts it for the corre-
sponding principle of set theory: "If the classes it precludes are not
wanted, its sweep is gratifyingly clean." 12 In full strength in set
theory, a grounding axiom is problematic; in semantics it wreaks
10 This apt term is borrowed from J. Searle's dissertation Problems Arising in
the Theory of Meaning out of the Notions of Sense and Reference, Oxford Uni-
versity, 1959.
11 H. Poincar6, "Les Mathematiques et la logique," Revue de Metaphysique et
de Morale, 14 (1906), 294-317, and B. Russell, "Mathematical Logic as Based on
the Theory of Types," American Journal of Mathematics, 30 (1908), 222-262.
12W. V. Quine, Set Theory and Its Logic (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press,
1963), p. 286. The remark occurs in the course of a discussion enumerating some
of the losses incurred by accepting the grounding condition in set theory.

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havoc, banishing the laws of logic on their naive construal (as state-
ments about all statements including themselves) along with the
general principles of semantic theory including the grounding con-
dition itself. Also, groundlessness being an inherited characteristic,
such a principle banishes particular semantic statements about
groundless sentences, including innocuous statements like:
9. (1) is groundless.
Before acquiescing in such a "gratifyingly clean sweep" it is appro-
priate to demand more coercive arguments than have yet been pro-
vided that nothing less will do.
Support for a mitigated grounding condition in semantics comes
from the Liar paradox. Scrapping the condition altogether would
rob us of a fitting explanation of that paradox and related phenom-
ena. Semantic theories adequate to natural language appear then
to want a grounding condition reformulated with suitable exemp-
tions, or at any rate a set of semantic principles that, however indi-
rectly, deny statementhood to critical sorts of groundless sentences.
The most elementary paradoxes of set theory deal with classes
whose members are the grounded classes (Mirimanoff's paradox) or
the classes free of cycles of length k (Russell's paradox has k = 1).
Holding to our initial correspondence between sentences and
classes, determined by the function D(S), this family of paradoxes
can be carried over to semantics.
The discussion of the last section ought to provide some indica-
tion that the grounding concept is a central notion of semantics,
perhaps even more so than of set theory. It seems bound to figure
somehow in the principles of any semantic theory adequate to cope
with the paradoxes. More specifically, the discussion so far provides
substantial evidence for the claim:
10. Grounded sentences are immune to the Liar paradox.
The evidence of course is less than conclusive, but the claim at any
rate has been raised and supported by examples. By all known
principles of grammar, (10) is a well-formed English sentence, whose
underlying grammatical subject specifies the condition "grounded
sentence." Recalling how domains are specified, it seems clear that
(10) has for its domain the class of all grounded sentences. Anyone
who has granted this much now falls prey to the paradox of
grounded sentences; for, on foregone assumptions, (10) is demon-
strably both grounded and groundless:

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(10) is grounded; for each member of the domain of (10) being

a grounded sentence, it follows immediately that (10) itself is
(10) is not grounded; for by hypothesis it is a sentence, and has
just been proved grounded, so it is a grounded sentence. By
hypothesis all grounded sentences are in the domain of (10),
so (10) itself is in the domain of (10) and thereby is not
Let it be noted that, unlike the Liar, this paradox admits of no
resolution by way of a sentence-statement distinction. Judicious at-
tention to that distinction 13 allows a grammatically well-formed
sentence to have a sense (express a proposition) while it lacks a
truth value (determines no statement), thereby resolving the an-
tinomy and explaining the paradox at one stroke. In the present
case, far from assuming that (10) has a truth value, it needn't even
be assumed to express a significant proposition, but only to be
grammatically well-formed. Nor does the paradox depend on some
shaky reference to all possible languages, for it can be reconstituted
in a form restricted explicitly to the grounded sentences of English.
Reasoning in this way, the pathological character of (10) can be lo-
calized in the assumption that its domain is the class of all grounded
sentences of some implicitly understood language or class of lan-
guages. But this remains unsettling inasmuch as this assumption
seemed to follow from a definition. What is worse, there are grounds
for supposing (10) to say something both true and important about
grounded sentences; and if the paradox disqualifies it from doing
so, how shall that thought be expressed?
Variant paradoxes arise for sentences whose domain purports to
be the class of all acyclic sentences; or for any given integer k, the
class of all sentences free from cycles of length k. Inasmuch as the
concepts of acyclicity and k-acyclicity are less urgent for semantic
theory, these variant paradoxes are proportionately less disturbing;
at any rate they serve to round out the type. And those who are
still persuaded of the Poincare-Russell diagnosis of the paradoxes
can thereby follow through the rest of the discussion in terms of
their own corresponding perplexities.
Another variation on this paradox arises from an alternative cor-
13 Developed along Fregean lines, as expounded in E. J. Lemmon, "Sentences,
Statements and Propositions," in B. Williams and A. Montefiore, British Ana-
lytical Philosophy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966); or alternatively as
in van Fraassen (op. cit.), reading "bivalent sentence" for "statement."

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respondence between expressions and classes-this time between

terms and classes. Let a grounded term be a term that heads no in-
finite sequence of terms each of which is satisfied by its successor in
that sequence. Then the term 'grounded term' comes out both
grounded and groundless. In using the concept of satisfaction in
place of the more complex concept of aboutness, this paradox of
grounded terms is more elementary, and facilitates analysis of the
earlier paradox of grounded sentences. It should prepare us to find
that no language can express its own grounding concepts, the plural
here indicating the proliferation of related concepts due to emerge
in the course of discussion.
To go more deeply into this family of paradoxes, it will help to ex-
pose the abstract structure underlying them, and to this end some
further results along the lines of (Ti) will be developed. For any
binary relation, a sequence of elements will be called an R-path
just in case each element bears the chosen relation to its successor in
that sequence; and anything will be called R-grounded just in case
it belongs to the field of the relation R but heads no infinitely long
R-path. Then we get an analogue of Thomson's result:

T2. Nothing can bear any relation R to exactly the R-grounded


Any chosen element that bears R to none but R-grounded elements

will perforce be R-grounded; but then it won't bear R to itself. So
there will be at least one R-grounded element to which the chosen
element fails to bear the relation R.
When R is interpreted as the converse of the membership rela-
tion, then (T2) yields an analysis of Mirimanoff's paradox of
grounded classes, which results from assuming that some class has
for its members exactly the grounded classes. Interpreting R as the
aboutness relation yields an initial analysis of the paradox of
grounded sentences, which results from assuming that some sentence
is about exactly the grounded sentences. Finally, interpreting R as
the converse of the satisfaction relation yields an analysis of the
paradox of grounded terms.
There is again a whole spectrum of variant cases involving
k-acyclicity with respect to R. Heterologicality in particular is
1-acyclicity with respect to the converse of the satisfaction relation.14
14 Compare Theorem 181 of XV. V. Quine's Mathematical Logic (Cambridge,

Mass.- Harvard, 1958).

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Of greater impact for present concerns are extensions in another

direction; these show that when two relations P and R are suitably
related, nothing can bear P to exactly the R-grounded elements.
For any set p of relations, let a mixed p-path be any sequence of ele-
ments each of which bears to its successor at least one of the rela-
tions in P. Let an element be called p-grounded just in case it be-
longs to the field of at least one of the relations in p but heads no
infinite p-path.As a corollary of (T2):
T3. Let P be any relation belonging to some set p of relations.
Then nothing bears P to exactly the p-grounded elements.
To prove this, just take R as the union of all the relations in P;
then the R-paths coincide with the mixed p-paths, and the
R-grounded elements coincide with the p-grounded elements. By
(T2) nothing bears R to exactly the R-grounded elements; and since
P is a subrelation of R, the limitation carries over to P as well.
This result treats R as the union of some family of relations; al-
ternatively R can happen to be the relative product Q[P of some
pair of relations, where 'QIP' abbreviates 'bears Q to at least one
thing that bears P to'. Under special conditions, P now becomes
subject to diagonal limitations with respect to R:
T4. Let R be the relative product QJP of some pair of rela-
tions. If Q includes a function onto the left field of P, then
nothing bears P to exactly the R-grounded elements.
The critical condition requires the existence of a relation F satisfy-
ing three requirements:
a. F is included in Q:[If xFy then xQy]
b. F is a function: [If xFy and xFz, then y = z]
c. F is onto the left field of P: [If wPz then xFw for at least one x]
The major step toward establishing (T4) is taken by:
Lemma: Let F be any function onto the left field of some re-
lation P. Then for each element h there is an element he
bearing FJP to exactly those things to which h bears P.
We want to show that [hPx <-- h*FJPx]. Let h be any element in
the left field of P. and so by hypothesis in the right field of F. At
least one element h* bears F to h. Now suppose hPx: then h*FIPx
by the foregoing consideration. Conversely, if h*FjPx, then hPx,
since by hypothesis F is a function and so h is the only element
borne F by h*. Any element h not in the left field of P bears P to

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nothing, and h* can be taken as any element not in the left field of
F and consequently bearing FjP to nothing.
The hypothesis of (T4) now ensures the existence of some sub-
relation F included in Q and functional onto the left field of P.
By the Lemma, for each element h there is an element h* bearing
FjP (and thereby QJP) to exactly those things to which h bears P.
Now imagine that h bears P to exactly the R-grounded elements;
in that case its counterpart h* would bear R to exactly the
R-grounded elements; but (T2) precludes the existence of any
such h*, and so the Lemma precludes the existence of any such
h, establishing (T4).
Now the paradox of grounded sentences can be seen as an ana-
logue of Richard's paradox, arising directly from an instance of
(T4).15 Temporarily limiting the discussion to simple sentences with
intransitive main verbs, 'about' can be glossed 'has for its under-
lying grammatical subject a term satisfied by', which admits of logi-
cal analysis into the relative product of a grammatical relation J
(has for its underlying grammatical subject) and the converse satis-
faction relation Z (is satisfied by); the role of the grammatical re-
lation J is to identify the term whose satisfaction is in question.
Our self-imposed limitation to simple sentences guarantees that
every sentence under consideration has exactly one grammatical
subject term (J is functional), and the rules of grammar supply for
each term at least one sentence having that term in the position of
grammatical subject (a is onto the set of terms). (T4) now secures
that no term can bear Z to exactly the set of (JIZ)-grounded sen-
Any pretensions to the notion of aboutness can now be aban-
doned, for J can as well be 'has for its first term' under a conven-
tion of counting from left to right, or right to left, or in any defi-
nite manner, so long as the conditions (a)-(c) of (T4) are fulfilled.
Each such application provides another variation on the grounding
paradox. In similar fashion paradoxes of "grounded paragraphs"
or "grounded books" and so on can be constructed; each ramifies the
set of concepts that prove pathological for any given language.
l5 A version of Richard's paradox comes out as a special case of a variant of
(T4) that results from replacing "R-grounding"therein by "R-irreflexive."Let
Q be any function assigning a number to each term of a given class, and let Z
be the converseof the satisfactionrelation ("is satisfiedby") for those terms. Let
a number be called richardian just in case Q assigns it to no term satisfied by
that number; the richardian numbers then coincide with those that are QjZ-
irreflexive,and the paradox arises from presuming that some term of the given
class can be satisfiedby exactly the richardiannumbers.

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In this section the import of these diagonal theorems for conceptual
structure will be explored by way of certain abstract models of con-
ceptual structure. My plan will be to begin with a highly idealized
model and then to proceed to complicate it in various ways. Under
all of these complications, a fundamental result remains invariant.
Within a broad range of alternative models, the grounding concepts
turn out to be systematically elusive for conceptual systems. In each
case this will be shown for the concept of grounded term; it could
be shown in like manner for the other grounding concepts as well.
Any conceptual system has some concepts (its ideology), some lin-
guistic expressions (its terminology), and some semantic rules that
assign concepts to terms. Alternative models of conceptual struc-
ture can differ in any of these components: they may contrast in
their theory of the relation between concepts and the objects that
fall under them, in the pattern of assignment of concepts to terms,
and so forth. The first model to be considered incorporates concepts
of the classical Fregean sort, and assigns them to terms in a fixed
and unambiguous way. Retaining Fregean concepts, the second
model allows a freer assignment of concepts to terms. The third
model employs a generalized theory of concepts, and the fourth
model generalizes once again, resulting in conceptual frameworks
of a pretty rarefied sort. All that remains in the end is a terminol-
ogy and a free possibility of assigning concepts to its elements, where
those concepts are drawn from a stock that need not be fixed in
Let an elementary conceptual system be one where both the con-
cepts and the pattern of their assignment to terms are of the neat-
est kind. Let the pattern of assignment be one-to-one, each item of
a given terminology receiving exactly one concept; and let the con-
cepts be of the classical Fregean sort, each concept having a class for
its extension and being wholly characterized by that class. In effect,
then, Fregean concepts may be simply identified with the corre-
sponding classes.
Elementary conceptual systems yield to the neatest of abstract
representations: concepts are tied one-to-one with their extensions,
and so the ideology drops out in favor of an ontology. The semantic
rules assign a class to each term, and the notion of expressibility
in such systems has a neat definition, exemplified by the case: the
16 The models in this section are in part based on R. Smullyan's "representa-

tion systems," simplified and adapted to suit present purposes. See Chapter III
A-1 of his Theory of Formal Systems (Princeton, N.J.: University Press, 1961).

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concept horse is expressible in some elementary conceptual system

if and only if the semantical rules of that system assign the class of
horses to at least one of its terms.
It will be clear from what has been said that these systems are de-
signed to express general nonrelational concepts, so that their terms
may be thought of as simple general terms (like 'polish') or complex
general terms (like 'watch-glass-scratch-remover-polish').Every lan-
guage presumably has underlying it some conceptual system, albeit
not necessarily an elementary one. The sentences of a language are
made up of terms and other syntactic elements like connectives,
operators, and variables; and these combine under favorable circum-
stances to express propositions. The relation between terms and
concepts established by the underlying conceptual system should be
thought of as outlining the conceptual capacities of the language,
so that the concepts assigned to any term in the underlying system
are those it can express in some suitably constructed sentence. The
present conceptual models severely abstract from the mechanism of
sentential and propositional structure, so as to provide a working
basis for certain general investigations.
Formally an elementary conceptual system is a triple { T,Nf} con-
sisting of a denumerable set T, its terminology; an abstract class N,
its ontology; and a function f whose value for each term in T is a
subset of N. A concept is expressible in some elementary conceptual
system just in case the semantic rules f assign its extension to at
least one of the terms of that system.
The semantic rules of any elementary conceptual system deter-
mine a relation of satisfaction that is subject to the abstract diagonal
theorems, so that no terms of any such system can possibly be satis-
fied by exactly the grounded terms of that system; thereby the con-
cept grounded term for any such system is inexpressible therein. It
can always be expressed in some expansion of the system, but that
expansion has a different class of grounded terms, which once again
earmarks an inexpressible concept:
T5. The concept grounded term for any elementary conceptual
system is inexpressible within that system.
Elementary conceptual systems being what they are, this limitation
should come as no surprise. Those systems are very neat, and natural
language is not; so there is no argument from the incompleteness of
the abstract model to the incompleteness of some language as rich
and complex as English. In many respects the concepts of English
are not classical Fregean concepts, nor can their manner of assign-

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ment to terms be captured by the simple model with which we have

begun. It is interesting to see, however, that this limitative result
remains stable under a host of variations and complications on the
abstract model.
The first complication we might take into account allows for mul-
tiplicity of sense and "growth" of the language in a limited way.
Instead of assuming a one-to-one correlation between terms and the
Fregean concepts they express, let each term be assigned a possibly
empty class of Fregean concepts. By a type 2 conceptual system then
let us understand a triple {T,N,o} where the terminology T and on-
tology N are as before and where the semantic rules now are a fam-
ily o of functions, each of which is a partial function over T whose
value for any term within its domain is a subset of the ontology.
o being a set of functions, the whole set can be applied en bloc to
any term t, resulting a set t (t) of values. ?(t) specifies for the given
term the various extensions determined by its alternative senses
within the system. Any term whose value under o is the empty set, is
meaningless within the system; by contrast, if ?(t) has for its sole
member the empty set, the term in question has a sense but has,
like 'greatest prime', a null extension; and if ?(t) has a plurality of
members, then the term in question is ambiguous within the system.
It is now possible to represent growth of the language in a limited
way without increasing the terminology; for there is always the pos-
sibility of assigning new senses to old terms by adding new functions
to the semantic rules o.
There can be little doubt that (T5) carries over to type 2 con-
ceptual systems in spite of their increased flexibility. Corresponding
to each function in t is a relation over the ontology N; let p be the
class of all those relations, and let G(p) be the class of all p-grounded
elements in the sense of (T3). By (T3) it then follows that no term
in T can have assigned to it the class G(p), and so no term of the
system expresses the concept grounded term for the system.
Fregean concepts are truth functions; as such they are extensional.
Some further expressive capacity may now be gained by scrapping
the one-to-one correlation between concepts and classes in favor of
a many-one correlation. Each subclass of the ontology now has a
family of potential concepts associated with it. Concepts now will
be something like propositional functions rather than truth func-
tions. How this theory of concepts is to be elaborated in further de-
tail is of no present concern, for what is being sought here is not
so much a characterization of languages and their conceptual sys-
tems as an index of their expressive richness and limitations. Let a

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type 3 conceptual system be a triple {T,No} as before. In order to

allow terms to have distinct but coextensive senses, we need only
revise our definition of expressibility and our remarks on ambigu-
ity. We now have a merely negative notion of expressibility: a con-
cept is inexpressible in some type 3 conceptual system if the seman-
tic rules assign its extension to no term of that system. Secondly, we
now have a sufficient but no longer necessary condition of ambigu-
ity, for a term t might be ambiguous within a type 3 conceptual
system even though ?(t) was a unit class, provided that the different
senses of the term were coextensive, as happens with 'light unicorn'.
Since the transition from type 2 to type 3 conceptual systems
changes nothing that is relevant to the limitative argument, it is
clear that the concept of grounded term is systematically elusive
within type 3 conceptual systems as well. Let us proceed now to a
more drastic innovation.
One of the most impressive departures of natural language from
the elementary model with which we began lies in its "openness."
The introduction of new senses for old terms has already been ac-
commodated. Besides this degree of freedom, it seems doubtful that
anything like a fixed ontology can be fastened onto English. In-
stead of taking a natural language on the model of a conceptual
system with fixed terminology, ideology, and fixed semantic rules,
it may seem more appropriate to think of it as a conceptual frame-
work rather like an uninterpreted calculus which can be used in
various ways on occasion to suit the purpose at hand. We want to
think of language, then, along the lines of Descartes and Leibniz
as a "universal instrument for the free expression of thought," in-
sofar as this proves possible. The framework should allow some
terms at least the kind of freedom of expression enjoyed by demon-
stratives like 'these' and 'those', so that in particular there should
be some term whose conceptual capacities match those of the En-
glish term'these terms'.
Thinking of the matter informally, each natural language has
some terms whose sense renders them capable of referring to any-
thing that can be indicated or brought into the focus of attention
in any way; at least this is the naive view of pure demonstrative
terms. This tempts one to surmise that the limitations so far en-
countered could be transcended within this generalized model of a
conceptual framework. No definite term of English can have as-
signed to it the class of all grounded terms of English; but German
has a term ('fundierter Term in englischen Sprache') for that class.
Even in elementary conceptual systems there is no difficulty in hav-

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ing a term of one system express the concept of grounding for some
second system. If indefinite terms have the complete freedom naively
ascribed to them, it should be possible for the indefinite term of
English to play vicar for the definite term of German, so that En-
glish after all could express its own grounding concept.
Abstractly a conceptual framework may be thought of as having
a fixed terminology but no fixed ontology, and the free possibility of
associating concepts with terms rather than any one definite and
fixed association of concepts with terms. It is possible to take the
terminology as fixed by the device of taking it broad enough, say
as the class of all sequences in a universal phonetic alphabet. This
would allow for the grafting onto English of terms from any other
language, and so would seem to be liberal enough. Concepts may
be taken in the liberalized sense of type 3 systems, with their merely
negative notion of expressibility.
Within this kind of framework, contextual parameters intervene
between terms and classes in such a way that it may not be possible
in advance to stipulate a fixed ontology from which those classes
are drawn. However, there is one part of this varying ontology that
remains constant, providing a fixed point in an ever-changing sys-
tem, and that is the terminology itself. All that needs to be known
about a given model in such a framework is that part of the model
relating to this fixed point, which is to say the metalinguistic part
of it.
The abstract representation of such a conceptual framework,
then, is given by a terminology T and a nod in the direction of
some chosen model of conceptual systems. A type 3 conceptual
framework can be identified with the class of all possible type 3
conceptual systems built on an initially fixed terminology. Now
there are two ways of construing the concept of grounded terms
within such a framework: either by way of the terms that are
grounded in some particular realization, or by way of the terms
that are grounded in all possible realizations. On either construal
the limitative result carries over, and the concept of grounding is
inexpressible even in a conceptual framework of this extremely
open sort.
As a corollary, it also follows that there is no such thing as a pure
indefinite term. It appears that the semantic concept of a pure in-
definite term, like the theological concept of an omnipotent being,
is after all subject to tacit reservations. Indefinite terms can con-
textually accomplish any task that any definite term whatsoever can
accomplish, logic permitting.

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There are yet some ways in which our models might be enriched,
but it becomes increasingly difficult to suppose that further elab-
orations will afford the means for transcending these limitative re-
sults.'7 A fairly substantial case can now be made for the conceptual
incompleteness of every possible language. To recapitulate, ele-
mentary conceptual systems exhibit the neatest structure, and they
give rise to systematically elusive concepts on the basis of simple
combinatorial facts. This feature survives progressive "loosening"
of the relations between terms and concepts on the one hand and
between concepts and classes on the other.
When further structure of conceptual systems is brought into ac-
count, a sort of linguistic Gresham's law takes hold, under which
"good" concepts may be driven out by "bad" ones. Conceptual sys-
tems of a regular structure incorporate closure properties that make
the design of a rich language, or discovery of the semantic principles
governing a rich language, a perilous affair.
The neatest paradoxes of the family under discussion take R as
the converse satisfaction relation: Grelling's paradox so results from
(TI), and the paradox of grounded terms so results from (T2). The
relevant theorems show that, contrary to expectations, the expres-
sion 'grounded term' does not hold of exactly the grounded terms,
and the expression 'heterological' does not hold of exactly the
heterological terms. What then are their respective extensions? One
view is that semantic concepts are functions with "singularities," so
that 'grounded term' for example might hold of all the grounded
terms excluding itself.'8 This resolution is "minimal" in the sense
of deleting no more from the naively considered extension of
'grounded term' than logical consistency demands: a single item.
It is also an "inner" as contrasted with a logically possible but not
17 There is, for example, the irksome fact that not every concept after all has
an extension. Let a russellian class be one that is not a member of itself; then
the term 'russellian class' while having a definite sense has no extension, for
want of a class whose members are exactly the russellian classes. A theory of
concepts adequate to such terms calls for extensive revision in our models, which
are all "platonistic." Basically the semantic rules need to associate with terms
"virtual classes" in Quine's sense (see his Set Theory and Its Logic). Further di-
agonal theorems would also be wanted to accommodate these revisions, since
(Ti) through (T4) have also been given "platonistically." These accommodations
run askew to present concerns which always involve real (not merely virtual)
classes that cannot be assigned to any term.
18 As in K. Godel, p. 50 of his "Russell's Mathematical Logic," in P. A. Schilpp,
ed., The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell (New York: Tudor Press, 1944). See also
W. Quine. "On Frege's Way Out," Mind, LXIV (1955): 145-159.

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initially attractive "outer" resolution under which 'grounded term

might hold of some superset of the grounded terms.
Withholding semantic terms from their own range of significance
forestalls some of the grounding paradoxes; but (T4) shows that
others would survive that particular retrenchment. The term
'grounded sentence' needs withholding not from itself but rather
from critical sentences in which it occurs, and the term 'grounded
paragraph' needs withholding from critical paragraphs in which
it occurs, and so on. The rule might seem to be that 'grounded M'
is to be withheld from certain (or, more conservatively, from all)
M's in which it occurs; and this in turn suggests a semantic rule
dealing with the manner in which 'grounded' combines to form
more complex terms. Care should be taken, however, to recognize
that 'grounded' itself is here shorthand for an endless ramification
of terms each of which expands as 'JIZ-grounded' for some chosen
'J'. Precautions would be required for every case in this ramifica-
tion, however artificial the definition of the case may be.
Apart from additional structure of conceptual systems, these con-
siderations indicate complications enough to be sorted out before
an adequate theory of this family of terms can be put forth. Sup-
pose, further, a conceptual system meeting the rather weak condi-
[Closure under Union]: For any two classes that are represented
in the system, so is the union of these two classes.
[Structural Descriptions]: For each term belonging to the ter-
minology of the system, its unit class is represented in the
where a class is represented in a conceptual system just in case the
semantic rules o assign it to at least one term therein. Now no sys-
tem meeting these two structural conditions admits of a minimal
inner resolution. If, for example, the class of all heterological terms
excluding 'heterological' were represented in such a system, so
would be the already forsworn class of heterological terms. And
by iterating these considerations, no conceptual system meeting
these two structural conditions can even come near to representing
its heterological terms in the technical sense of representing all but
some finite number of them.
Along similar lines it emerges that conceptual systems meeting
further structural conditions cannot express their own fundamen-
tal semantic concepts like truth and satisfaction, the assumption

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that they might do so entailing that they would per impossibile ex-
press their own grounding concepts. Let it suffice here to present the
simplest of these results, an analogue of Tarski's limitative theorem
framed in terms of satisfaction rather than truth.19 Suppose a con-
ceptual system whose structure ensures closure under union and
[Closure under Complementation]: Relative to its ontology, the
complement of any class that is represented in the system, it-
self is represented in the system.
Closure under both union and complementation render the system
boolean, and in particular they ensure closure of represented classes
under intersection, the intersection of any two sets being the com-
plement of the union of their complements. Now imagine any such
boolean system to be augmented so as to incorporate relational
terms, by way of functions in 0 that assign to terms classes of ordered
pairs (subclasses of N2). Consider now two more conditions on such
augmented systems:
[Metalinguistic Identity]: The identity relation over the ter-
minology of the system, is represented in the system.
[Relational Domains]: For any relation that is represented in
the system, so is its domain (the class of its first members).
Now we get the following result on relative representability:
T6. Let S be any boolean conceptual system meeting the struc-
tural conditions [Metalinguistic Identity] and [Relational
Domains]; and let R be any relation over the terminology
of S. Now if the relation R is represented in the system S,
then so is the class of R-heterological terms.
The R-heterological terms are those which do not bear R to them-
selves; those things which do bear R to themselves comprise the
domain of the intersection of R with the metalinguistic identity
relation, that it [Domain (R n I)]; and the R-heterological terms
comprise the intersection of the complement of this class with the
class of terms. The hypothesized conditions clearly suffice to ensure
representability of the complement of [Domain (R n I)]. They also
19 Tarski has this result in one form, and Smullyan has it in another, each

dealing with the concept of truth rather than satisfaction. See Theorem 1, Sec-
tion II.2 of A. Tarski, A. Mostowski, and R. M. Robinson, Undecidable Theories
(Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1953); and Theorem 1.1, Chapter III-A of R. M.
Smullyan, op. cit.

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suffice to ensure representability of the class I of all terms, for this

is just the domain of the metalinguistic identity-relation I; and thus
representability of the relation R secures that of the class R-Het,
within any such system.
In a boolean system of this sort, if R-heterologicality is inexpres-
sible for any reason, so must be the relation R. In particular, then,
the concept of satisfaction for such a system will be inexpressible
within the system. It is well to remark that assumptions of "con-
sistency" of the system or the surrounding language nowhere figure
in the argument; and, to the extent that the indicated conditions
can be interpreted for conceptual frameworks, the results apply
there as well. To make such an application, the complement con-
dition is best reformulated eliminating reference to the ontology;
for example, so as to secure complementation of classes relative to
the terminology T and of relations relative to the class of ordered
pairs of terms, T2.
Even if we assume the model of a conceptual framework to be
adequate to natural language, it would be somewhat premature to
conclude that natural languages cannot express their own concepts
of satisfaction; for the boolean structure and possibly even the sup-
plementary conditions may be held negotiable. Needless to say,
none of the above structural conditions can be forsworn with im-
punity, and much further investigation on their import for nat-
ural languages will be wanted before these problems can be resolved.
We have now considerable grounds to support the view that no lan-
guage is universal in the sense of Tarski. Every language, however
vast, expresses less than the totality of what can be thought, inas-
much as each language in turn "shows" certain things that cannot
be "said" within it. These limitations clearly hold for languages
even in the extended sense on which they are considered as frame-
works including the possibility of their own indefinite growth by
endless expansion of their semantic rules.
If no language is universal, then Tarski's diagnosis of the seman-
tic paradoxes cannot be strictly accurate:
It is presumablyjust this universalityof everydaylanguage which is
the primarysource of all semanticalantinomies like the antinomy of
the liar or of heterologicalwords.These antinomiesseem to provide a
proof that every language which is universal in the above sense, and
for which the normallaws of logic hold, must be inconsistent.20
20 "Concept of Truth in Formalized Languages," loc. cit.

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But the inconsistency is already there in the presumption of such a

language, within a broad range of models of conceptual structure.
Like the elusive barber of Alcala, there is, so far as can now be seen,
no such thing as a language that is universal; and, strictly speaking,
a nonentity cannot be the source of all antinomies. This being
granted, a minor variation on Tarski's diagnosis might be made
to stick; for a presumed nonentity could do the job. Natural lan-
gtuages are very rich, and may perhaps be as close to universal as
any language can be. The presumption that they are strictly uni-
versal might well suffice to explain the grounding paradoxes, and
the falsity of this presumption might eventually suffice to explain
them away. In this connection consider a question and a claim
voiced by Thomson:
If the Barber and 'Heterological' have a common structure, why
should the one need so much more discussionthan the other? First,
there is a common misconception that 'Heterological'is a paradox
essentiallyabout meaning (op. cit., 115).
But now one plausible answer to the question takes issue with the
Abstract diagonal results like (Tl) and the rest make no claim
specifically about meaning, for they apply to any subject matter;
but the abstractness of those results does not carry over to their
particular applications. Grelling's paradox in particular may be
claimed to turn on puzzling or problematic features of the ideas
of meaning and truth, contrary claims (see op. cit., 110) notwith-
standing, as emerges from contrast with the nonparadox of "contra-
logical" terms. Let two terms be called consonant if they are mu-
tually compatible on each of their various senses; thus 'blue' and
'cowardly' are consonant, whereas 'blue' and 'yellow' are not. Let
a term be called contralogical if it is not self-consonant; the word
'Schnur' in German, with its various contrary senses, is paradigmatic
of a contralogical term.21 Now (Tl) precludes the possibility that
some term of a certain language might be consonant with all and
only the contralogical terms of that language. This may come as a
surprise, or at any rate as news, but hardly engenders that crisis of
intuition or theory characteristic of a genuine paradox.
There is no end to the distinct applications of diagonal results
to language structure; some of them are paradoxical, and others
21 Accordingto Kierkegaardin Either-Or: "The word Schnur ... means in the
first place a string, in the second, a daughter-in-law.The only thing lacking is
that the word Schnur would mean in the third place a camel, in the fourth, a

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are not. In answer to Thomson's question, it may be conjectured,

following Tarski, that all the genuine semantic paradoxes owe their
perplexing character to direct or indirect conflict with the univer-
sality principle and that, in particular, the semantic applications
of the diagonal results (Ti) through (T4) divide into paradoxical
and nonparadoxical along just these lines:
Conjecture: An application of the diagonal theorems of section
Iv to language structure is paradoxical if and only if it secures
that a certain class of expressions of some language cannot be
represented by any term in that language.

Each linguistic application of a diagonal result shows that no lan-

guage can incorporate expressions of a given kind. Failing some
initial pressure from theory or intuition for such expressions, that
particular application may be frivolous; but the universality prin-
ciple can, according to this conjecture, be relied upon to furnish
such pressure. This view accords with Thomson's own remarks on
Grelling's paradox:
The paradox arises on supposing that the set of heterological ad-
jectives is the extension of some adjective. But it is natural to sup-
pose that this set is the extension of some adjective, namely the ad-
jective 'heterological'(108).
The universality principle supports this "natural supposition,"
while proving irrelevant to the existence of terms consonant with
just the contralogical terms.
This provisional account can be tested by searching for a fuller
characterization of alternative applications of diagonal results to
language structure, with a view to dividing the paradoxical from
the nonparadoxical applications. According to our conjecture, para-
doxes of grounding are bound somehow to involve the concept of
satisfaction; now to get more clear on just how that involvement
runs. The major family of cases comes from (T4), with its com-
posite relation JIZ, taking Z as the converse satisfaction relation and
J as some syntactical relation that serves to identify the term whose
satisfaction is in question. We know that 'about' yields a paradox,
and due consideration will show that its converse does not. This is
as it should be, since the converse of 'about' no longer has the requi-
site structure JIZ, and so fails of a minimal condition on paradoxi-
cal applications of (T4); there is no paradox of "ceilinged" sen-
tences. For relations having the logical analysis JIZ the conditions
(a) through (c) of (T4) have still to be met: J must include a func-
tion onto the set of terms. Each term t must admit of at least one

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thing to which bears J to it and to it alone. This condition bears

on the structure of the language and perhaps even on its vocabulary.
For example, "rhymes with" would satisfy the uniqueness require-
ment only in "blank verse" languages where every term rhymes only
with itself.
Turning now to the import of these results on linguistic theory,
the impossibility of any universal conceptual framework indicates
that any linguistic theory applicable to all natural languages may
be inexpressible in each of them. Strictly speaking, this conclusion
hinges on the proposition that grounding concepts are indispensi-
ble in linguistic theory, either to support restrictions on statement-
hood in treatment of the Liar paradox (section II) or as by-products
of conceptual closure (section VI). Compatible with present results,
Latin might be rich enough to express the complete semantics of
English, and vice versa, but each would have critical expressive
gaps with regard to its own semantic theory, and neither could be
adequate to all languages. Thus it seems that:
Any linguistic theory is either essentially inexpressible in nat-
ural language or else is essentially incomplete.
The incompleteness might be in extent, the theory being applicable
to less than the full range of natural languages; or it might be in
depth, the theory being applicable only to restricted portions of the
languages within its domain. It may be remarked that nothing in
present results militates against the possibility of incorporating the
semantic principles of all natural languages within a specially de-
vised artificial language, unless it be some cherished belief in the
translatability of the language of science into the semi-vernacular.
University of Toronto


T HE views I shall discuss are expressed by W. V. 0. Quine

in the following passages from Word and Object *; I call
the first the indeterminacy-of-translation thesis and the
second the thesis of the indeterminacy or revisability of theories.
... manuals for translating one language into another can be set up
in divergent ways, all compatible with the totality of speech disposi-
tions, yet incompatible with one another. In countless places they
* Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, and New York: Wiley, 1960.

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