Linguistic meaning is the content carried by the words or signs exchanged by people when communicating through language. Restated, the communication of meaning is the purpose and function of language. A communicated meaning will (more or less accurately) replicate between individuals either a direct perception or some sentient derivation thereof. Meanings may take many forms, such as evoking a certain idea, or denoting a certain real-world entity.
Linguistic meaning is studied in philosophy and semiotics, and especially in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, logic, and communication theory. Fields like sociolinguistics tend to be more interested in non-linguistic meanings. Linguistics lends itself to the study of linguistic meaning in the fields of semantics (which studies conventional meanings and how they are assembled) and pragmatics (which studies in how language is used by individuals). Literary theory, critical theory, and some branches of psychoanalysis are also involved in the discussion of meaning. Legal scholars and practitioners have discussed the nature of meaning of statutes, precedents and contracts since Roman law. However, this division of labor is not absolute, and each field depends to some extent upon the others.
Questions about how words and other symbols mean anything, and what it means to say that something is meaningful, are pivotal to an understanding of language. Since humans are in part characterized by their sophisticated ability to use language, it has also been seen as an essential subject to explore in order to understand human experience.
The nature of meaning, its definition, elements, and types, is mainly established by Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas (also known as the AAA framework). According to this classic tradition, 'meaning is a relationship between two sorts of things: signs and the kinds of things they mean (intend, express or signify)'. One term in the relation of meaning necessarily causes something else to come to the mind in consequence. 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:
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:
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.
David Hume is well-known for his belief that thoughts were kinds of imaginable entities. (See his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, section 2). It might be inferred that this perspective also applied to a theory of meaning. Hume was adamant about one point: that any words that could not call upon any past experience were without meaning. His forebearer, John Locke, seemed a bit more reserved in his analysis. Locke considered all ideas to be both imaginable objects of sensation and the very unimaginable objects of reflection. He stressed, in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, that words are used both as signs for ideas -- but also to signify the lack of certain ideas.
However, over the past century, strong forms of the idea theories of meaning have been criticized by many philosophers for several reasons.
One criticism made as early as George Berkeley and as late as Ludwig Wittgenstein, was 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 Bismarck's mother looked like, yet the phrase "Bismarck's mother" 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.
But the idea theory of meaning has lately been defended in new form by contemporary cognitive scientists Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff. Called the theory of prototypes, it 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.
There are many contemporary philosophers (Ned Block, Gilbert Harman, H. Field) and cognitive scientists (G. Miller and P. Johnson-Laird) who insist that the meaning of a term can be found by investigating its role in relation to other concepts and mental states. These philosophers 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. With this emphasis upon meaning as an aspect of human psychology, they fit within the tradition of idea theories.
Logic and reality were at the core of their understanding of truth and meaning. To understand this insight, some explanation of the history of logic is necessary.
Classical logicians had known since Aristotle how to codify certain common patterns of reasoning into logical form. But in the 19th century, Western philosophy took a turn toward language philosophy. This shift in interest is tied closely to the development of modern logic. Modern logic began with the work of the German logician Gottlob Frege in the late nineteenth century. Frege, along with contemporaries George Boole and Charles Sanders Peirce, advanced logic significantly by introducing Sentential connectives (like and, or and if-then), and quantifiers like all and some. Much of this work was made possible by the development of set theory.
Frege noted that proper names present at least two problems in explaining meaning.
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 philosophers as applying to all expressions but proper names.
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 century, 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") 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 (see also convention (philosophy) and conventions as regularities of a specific sort. Lewis' work was an application of game theory in philosophical matters. Conventions, he argued, are a species of coordination equilibria.