Meaning (philosophy of language)
The nature of meaning, its definition, elements, and types, was discussed by philosophers Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. According to them 'meaning is a relationship between two sorts of things: signs and the kinds of things they mean (intend, express or signify)'.citation needed One term in the relationship of meaning necessarily causes something else to come to the mind. In other words: 'a sign is defined as an entity that indicates another entity to some agent for some purpose'.
The types of meanings vary according to the types of the thing that is being represented. Namely:
- There are the things in the world, which might have meaning;
- There are things in the world that are also signs of other things in the world, and so, are always meaningful (i.e., natural signs of the physical world and ideas within the mind);
- There are things that are always necessarily meaningful, such as words, and other nonverbal symbols.
All subsequent inquiries emphasize some particular perspectives within the general AAA framework.
The major contemporary positions of meaning come under the following partial definitions of meaning:
- Psychological theories, exhausted by notions of thought, intention, or understanding;
- Logical theories, involving notions such as intension, cognitive content, or sense, along with extension, reference, or denotation;
- Message, content, information, or communication;
- Truth conditions;
- Usage, and the instructions for usage; and
- Measurement, computation, or operation.
- 1 Idea theories of meaning
- 2 Truth and meaning
- 3 Usage and meaning
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 Further reading
Some have argued that meanings are ideas, where the term "ideas" is used to refer to either mental representations, or to mental activity in general. Those who seek an explanation for meaning in the former sort of account endorse a stronger sort of idea theory of mind than the latter.
Each idea is understood to be necessarily about something external and/or internal, real or imaginary. For example, in contrast to the abstract meaning of the universal "dog", the referent "this dog" may mean a particular real life chihuahua. In both cases, the word is about something, but in the former it is about the class of dogs as generally understood, while in the latter it is about a very real and particular dog in the real world.
John Locke, considered all ideas to be both imaginable objects of sensation and the very unimaginable objects of reflection. He said in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, that words are used both as signs for ideas—but also to signify the lack of certain ideas. David Hume held that thoughts were kinds of imaginable entities. (See his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, section 2). Hume argued that any words that could not call upon any past experience were without meaning.
George Berkeley and Ludwig Wittgenstein held however that ideas alone are unable to account for the different variations within a general meaning. For example, any hypothetical image of the meaning of "dog" has to include such varied images as a chihuahua, a pug, and a Black Lab; and this seems impossible to imagine, all of those particular breeds looking very different from one another. Another way to see this point is to question why it is that, if we have an image of a specific type of dog (say of a chihuahua), it should be entitled to represent the entire concept.
Another criticism is that some meaningful words, known as non-lexical items, don't have any meaningfully associated image. For example, the word "the" has a meaning, but one would be hard-pressed to find a mental representation that fits it. Still another objection lies in the observation that certain linguistic items name something in the real world, and are meaningful, yet which we have no mental representations to deal with. For instance, it is not known what Newton's father looked like, yet the phrase "Newton's father" still has meaning.
Another problem is that of composition — that it is difficult to explain how words and phrases combine into sentences if only ideas were involved in meaning.
Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff advanced the theory of prototypes, which suggests that many lexical categories, at least on the face of things, have "radial structures". That is to say, there are some ideal member(s) in the category that seem to represent the category better than other members. For example, the category of "birds" may feature the robin as the prototype, or the ideal kind of bird. With experience, subjects might come to evaluate membership in the category of "bird" by comparing candidate members to the prototype and evaluating for similarities. So, for example, a penguin or an ostrich would sit at the fringe of the meaning of "bird", because a penguin is unlike a robin.
Intimately related to these researches is the notion of a psychologically basic level, which is both the first level named and understood by children, and "the highest level at which a single mental image can reflect the entire category". (Lakoff 1987:46) The "basic level" of cognition is understood by Lakoff as crucially drawing upon "image-schemas" along with various other cognitive processes.
The philosophers (Ned Block, Gilbert Harman, H. Field) and the cognitive scientists (G. Miller and P. Johnson-Laird) say that the meaning of a term can be found by investigating its role in relation to other concepts and mental states. They endorse a view called "conceptual role semantics". Those proponents of this view who understand meanings to be exhausted by the content of mental states can be said to endorse "one-factor" accounts of conceptual role semantics. and thus fit within the tradition of idea theories.
Some have asserted that meaning is nothing substantially more or less than the truth conditions they involve. For such theories, an emphasis is placed upon reference to actual things in the world to account for meaning, with the caveat that reference more or less explains the greater part (or all) of meaning itself.
In his paper Über Sinn und Bedeutung (now usually translated as On Sense and Reference), Gottlob Frege argued that proper names present at least two problems in explaining meaning.
- Suppose the meaning of a name is the thing it refers to. Sam, then, means a person in the world who is named Sam. But if the object referred to by the name did not exist—i.e., Pegasus—then, according to that theory, it would be meaningless.
- Suppose two different names refer to the same object. Hesperus and Phosphorus were the names given to what were considered distinct celestial bodies. It was later shown that they were the same thing (the planet Venus). If the words meant the same thing, then substituting one for the other in a sentence would not result in a sentence that differs in meaning from the original. But in that case, "Hesperus is Phosphorus" would mean the same thing as "Hesperus is Hesperus". This is clearly absurd, since we learn something new and unobvious by the former statement, but not by the latter.
Frege can be interpreted as arguing that it was therefore a mistake to think that the meaning of a name is the thing it refers to. Instead, the meaning must be something else—the "sense" of the word. Two names for the same person, then, can have different senses (or meanings): one referent might be picked out by more than one sense. This sort of theory is called a mediated reference theory.
Frege argued that, ultimately, the same bifurcation of meaning must apply to most or all linguistic categories, such as to quantificational expressions like "All boats float". Ironically enough, it is now accepted by many philosopherswho? as applying to all expressions but proper namescitation needed.
Logical analysis was further advanced by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their groundbreaking Principia Mathematica, which attempted to produce a formal language with which the truth of all mathematical statements could be demonstrated from first principles.
Russell differed from Frege greatly on many points, however. He rejected (or perhaps misunderstood) Frege's sense-reference distinction. He also disagreed that language was of fundamental significance to philosophy, and saw the project of developing formal logic as a way of eliminating all of the confusions caused by ordinary language, and hence at creating a perfectly transparent medium in which to conduct traditional philosophical argument. He hoped, ultimately, to extend the proofs of the Principia to all possible true statements, a scheme he called logical atomism. For a while it appeared that his pupil Wittgenstein had succeeded in this plan with his "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus".
Russell's work, and that of his colleague G. E. Moore, developed in response to what they perceived as the nonsense dominating British philosophy departments at the turn of the 20th century, which was a kind of British Idealism most of which was derived (albeit very distantly) from the work of Hegel. In response Moore developed an approach ("Common Sense Philosophy"1) which sought to examine philosophical difficulties by a close analysis of the language used in order to determine its meaning. In this way Moore sought to expunge philosophical absurdities such as "time is unreal". Moore's work would have significant, if oblique, influence (largely mediated by Wittgenstein) on Ordinary language philosophy.
The Vienna Circle, a famous group of logical positivists from the early 20th century (closely allied with Russell and Frege), adopted the verificationist theory of meaning. The verificationist theory of meaning (in at least one of its forms) states that to say that an expression is meaningful is to say that there are some conditions of experience that could exist to show that the expression is true. As noted, Frege and Russell were two proponents of this way of thinking.
A semantic theory of truth was produced by Alfred Tarski for formal semantics. According to Tarski's account, meaning consists of a recursive set of rules that end up yielding an infinite set of sentences, "'p' is true if and only if p", covering the whole language. His innovation produced the notion of propositional functions discussed on the section on universals (which he called "sentential functions"), and a model-theoretic approach to semantics (as opposed to a proof-theoretic one). Finally, some links were forged to the correspondence theory of truth (Tarski, 1944).
Perhaps the most influential current approach in the contemporary theory of meaning is that sketched by Donald Davidson in his introduction to the collection of essays Truth and Meaning in 1967. There he argued for the following two theses:
- Any learnable language must be statable in a finite form, even if it is capable of a theoretically infinite number of expressions—as we may assume that natural human languages are, at least in principle. If it could not be stated in a finite way then it could not be learned through a finite, empirical method such as the way humans learn their languages. It follows that it must be possible to give a theoretical semantics for any natural language which could give the meanings of an infinite number of sentences on the basis of a finite system of axioms.
- Giving the meaning of a sentence, he further argued, was equivalent to stating its truth conditions. He proposed that it must be possible to account for language as a set of distinct grammatical features together with a lexicon, and for each of them explain its workings in such a way as to generate trivial (obviously correct) statements of the truth conditions of all the (infinitely many) sentences built up from these.
The result is a theory of meaning that rather resembles, by no accident, Tarski's account.
Davidson's account, though brief, constitutes the first systematic presentation of truth-conditional semantics. He proposed simply translating natural languages into first-order predicate calculus in order to reduce meaning to a function of truth.
Saul Kripke examined the relation between sense and reference in dealing with possible and actual situations. He showed that one consequence of his interpretation of certain systems of modal logic was that the reference of a proper name is necessarily linked to its referent, but that the sense is not. So for instance "Hesperus" necessarily refers to Hesperus, even in those imaginary cases and worlds in which perhaps Hesperus is not the evening star. That is, Hesperus is necessarily Hesperus, but only contingently the morning star.
This results in the curious situation that part of the meaning of a name — that it refers to some particular thing — is a necessary fact about that name, but another part — that it is used in some particular way or situation — is not.
Kripke also drew the distinction between speaker's meaning and semantic meaning, elaborating on the work of ordinary language philosophers Paul Grice and Keith Donnellan. The speaker's meaning is what the speaker intends to refer to by saying something; the semantic meaning is what the words uttered by the speaker mean according to the language.
In some cases, people do not say what they mean; in other cases, they say something that is in error. In both these cases, the speaker's meaning and the semantic meaning seem to be different. Sometimes words do not actually express what the speaker wants them to express; so words will mean one thing, and what people intend to convey by them might mean another. The meaning of the expression, in such cases, is ambiguous.
W.V. Quine attacked both verificationism and the very notion of meaning in his famous essay, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". In it, he suggested that meaning was nothing more than a vague and dispensable notion. Instead, he asserted, what was more interesting to study was the synonymy between signs. He also pointed out that verificationism was tied to the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements, and asserted that such a divide was defended ambiguously. He also suggested that the unit of analysis for any potential investigation into the world (and, perhaps, meaning) would be the entire body of statements taken as a collective, not just individual statements on their own.
Other criticisms can be raised on the basis of the limitations that truth-conditional theorists themselves admit to. Tarski, for instance, recognized that truth-conditional theories of meaning only make sense of statements, but fail to explain the meanings of the lexical parts that make up statements. Rather, the meaning of the parts of statements is presupposed by an understanding of the truth-conditions of a whole statement, and explained in terms of what he called "satisfaction conditions".
Still another objection (noted by Frege and others) was that some kinds of statements don't seem to have any truth-conditions at all. For instance, "Hello!" has no truth-conditions, because it doesn't even attempt to tell the listener anything about the state of affairs in the world. In other words, different propositions have different grammatical moods.
Deflationist accounts of truth, sometimes called 'irrealist' accounts, are the staunchest source of criticism of truth-conditional theories of meaning. According to them, "truth" is a word with no serious meaning or function in discourse. For instance, for the deflationist, the sentences "It's true that Tiny Tim is trouble" and "Tiny Tim is trouble" are equivalent. In consequence, for the deflationist, any appeal to truth as an account of meaning has little explanatory power.
The sort of truth-theories presented here can also be attacked for their formalism both in practice and principle. The principle of formalism is challenged by the informalists, who suggest that language is largely a construction of the speaker, and so, not compatible with formalization. The practice of formalism is challenged by those who observe that formal languages (such as present-day quantificational logic) fail to capture the expressive power of natural languages (as is arguably demonstrated in the awkward character of the quantificational explanation of definite description statements, as laid out by Bertrand Russell).
Finally, over the past century, forms of logic have been developed that are not dependent exclusively on the notions of truth and falsity. Some of these types of logic have been called modal logics. They explain how certain logical connectives such as "if-then" work in terms of necessity and possibility. Indeed, modal logic was the basis of one of the most popular and rigorous formulations in modern semantics called the Montague grammar. The successes of such systems naturally give rise to the argument that these systems have captured the natural meaning of connectives like if-then far better than an ordinary, truth-functional logic ever could.
Throughout the 20th Century, English philosophy focused closely on analysis of language. This style of analytic philosophy became very influential and led to the development of a wide range of philosophical tools.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was originally an artificial language philosopher, following the influence of Russell, Frege, and the Vienna Circle. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he had supported the idea of an ideal language built up from atomic statements using logical connectives. However, as he matured, he came to appreciate more and more the phenomenon of natural language. Philosophical Investigations, published after his death, signalled a sharp departure from his earlier work with its focus upon ordinary language use. His approach is often summarised by the aphorism "the meaning of a word is its use in a language". However, following in Frege's footsteps, in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein declares: "... Only in the context of a proposition has a name meaning."2
His work would come to inspire future generations and spur forward a whole new discipline, which explained meaning in a new way. Meaning in a natural language was seen as primarily a question of how the speaker uses words within the language to express intention.
This close examination of natural language proved to be a powerful philosophical technique. Practitioners who were influenced by Wittgenstein's approach have included an entire tradition of thinkers, featuring P. F. Strawson, Paul Grice, R. M. Hare, R. S. Peters, and Jürgen Habermas.
At around the same time Ludwig Wittgenstein was re-thinking his approach to language, reflections on the complexity of language led to a more expansive approach to meaning. Following the lead of George Edward Moore, J. L. Austin examined the use of words in great detail. He argued against fixating on the meaning of words. He showed that dictionary definitions are of limited philosophical use, since there is no simple "appendage" to a word that can be called its meaning. Instead, he showed how to focus on the way in which words are used in order to do things. He analysed the structure of utterances into three distinct parts: locutions, illocutions and perlocutions. His pupil John Searle developed the idea under the label "speech acts". Their work greatly influenced pragmatics.
Past philosophers had understood reference to be tied to words themselves. However, Sir Peter Strawson disagreed in his seminal essay, "On Referring", where he argued that there is nothing true about statements on their own; rather, only the uses of statements could be considered to be true or false.
Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the ordinary use perspective is its insistence upon the distinctions between meaning and use. "Meanings", for ordinary language philosophers, are the instructions for usage of words — the common and conventional definitions of words. Usage, on the other hand, is the actual meanings that individual speakers have — the things that an individual speaker in a particular context wants to refer to. The word "dog" is an example of a meaning, but pointing at a nearby dog and shouting "This dog smells foul!" is an example of usage. From this distinction between usage and meaning arose the divide between the fields of Pragmatics and Semantics.
Yet another distinction is of some utility in discussing language: "mentioning". Mention is when an expression refers to itself as a linguistic item, usually surrounded by quotation marks. For instance, in the expression "'Opopanax' is hard to spell", what is referred to is the word itself ("opopanax") and not what it means (an obscure gum resin). Frege had referred to instances of mentioning as "opaque contexts".
In his essay, "Reference and Definite Descriptions", Keith Donnellan sought to improve upon Strawson's distinction. He pointed out that there are two uses of definite descriptions: attributive and referential. Attributive uses provide a description of whoever is being referred to, while referential uses point out the actual referent. Attributive uses are like mediated references, while referential uses are more directly referential.
The philosopher Paul Grice, working within the ordinary language tradition, understood "meaning" — in his 1957 eponymous article — to have two kinds: natural and non-natural. Natural meaning had to do with cause and effect, for example with the expression "these spots mean measles". Non-natural meaning, on the other hand, had to do with the intentions of the speaker in communicating something to the listener.
In his essay, Logic and Conversation, Grice went on to explain and defend an explanation of how conversations work. His guiding maxim was called the cooperative principle, which claimed that the speaker and the listener will have mutual expectations of the kind of information that will be shared. The principle is broken down into four maxims: Quality (which demands truthfulness and honesty), Quantity (demand for just enough information as is required), Relation (relevance of things brought up), and Manner (lucidity). This principle, if and when followed, lets the speaker and listener figure out the meaning of certain implications by way of inference.
The works of Grice led to an avalanche of research and interest in the field, both supportive and critical. One spinoff was called Relevance theory, developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson during the mid-1980s, whose goal was to make the notion of relevance more clear. Similarly, in his work, "Universal pragmatics", Jurgen Habermas began a program that sought to improve upon the work of the ordinary language tradition. In it, he laid out the goal of a valid conversation as a pursuit of mutual understanding.
Michael Dummett argued against the kind of truth-conditional semantics presented by Davidson. Instead, he argued that basing semantics on assertion conditions avoids a number of difficulties with truth-conditional semantics, such as the transcendental nature of certain kinds of truth condition. He leverages work done in proof-theoretic semantics to provide a kind of inferential role semantics, where:
- The meaning of sentences and grammatical constructs is given by their assertion conditions; and
- Such a semantics is only guaranteed to be coherent if the inferences associated with the parts of language are in logical harmony.
A semantics based upon assertion conditions is called a verificationist semantics: cf. the verificationism of the Vienna Circle.
This work is closely related, though not identical, to one-factor theories of conceptual role semantics.
Cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor has noted that use theories (of the Wittgensteinian kind) seem to be committed to the notion that language is a public phenomenon—that there is no such thing as a "private language". Fodor opposes such claims because he thinks it is necessary to create or describe the language of thought, which would seemingly require the existence of a "private language".
Some philosophers of language, such as Christopher Gauker, have criticised Gricean theories of communication and meaning for their excessive focus on the efforts of a listener to discover the speaker's intentions. This, Gauker argues, is not required for linguistic communication, and so will not suffice for theory.
In the 1960s, David Kellogg Lewis published another thesis of meaning as use, as he described meaning as a feature of a social convention and conventions as regularities of a specific sort. Lewis' work was an application of game theory in philosophical matters.3 Conventions, he argued, are a species of coordination equilibria.
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