Report Number: CS-TR-76-580
Institution: Stanford University, Department of Computer Science
Title: Towards a procedural understanding of semantics
Author: Winograd, Terry A.
Date: November 1976
Abstract: The term "procedural semantics" has been used in a variety of ways, not all compatible, and not all comprehensible. In this paper, I have chosen to apply the term to a broad paradigm for studying semantics (and in fact, all of linguistics). This paradigm has developed in a context of writing computer programs which use natural language, but it is not a theory of computer programs or programming techniques. It is "procedural" because it looks at the underlying structure of language as fundamentally shaped by the nature of processes for language production and comprehension. It is based on the belief that there is a level of explanation at which there are significant similarities between the psychological processes of human language use and the computational processes in computer programs we can construct and study. Its goal is to develop a body of theory at this level. This approach necessitates abandoning or modifying several currently accepted doctrines, including the way in which distinctions have been drawn between "semantics" and "pragmatics" and between "performance" and "competence". The paper has three major sections. It first lays out the paradigm assumptions which guide the enterprise, and elaborates a model of cognitive processing and language use. It then illustrates how some specific semantic problems might be approached from a procedural perspective, and contrasts the procedural approach with formal structural and truth conditional approaches. Finally, it discusses the goals of linguistic theory and the nature of the linguistic explanation. Much of what is presented here is a speculation about the nature of a paradigm yet to be developed. This paper is an attempt to be evocative rather than definitive; to convey intuitions rather than to formulate crucial arguments which justify this approach over others. It will be successful if it suggests some ways of looking at language which lead to further understanding.