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[entry, MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences]
MEANING: centrally, the feature(s) of an expression (over and above its
form) that determine its contribution to what a speaker says in using
it; also, the content of the communicative intention of the speaker in
using an expression (even if that use departs from the expression's
meaning). Accordingly, any discussion of meaning should distinguish
speaker's meaning from linguistic meaning.
We think of meanings as what synonyms and translations have in common,
what ambiguous expressions have more than one of, what meaningful
expressions have and gibberish lacks, and what competent speakers grasp.
Yet linguistic meaning is a puzzling notion. The traditional view is
that the meaning of a word is the concept associated with it and, as
FREGE suggested, what determines its reference, but this plausible view
is problematic in various ways. For starters, it is not clear what
CONCEPTS are, what the relevant sort of association with words is, or,
indeed, that every word has any concept, much less a unique concept,
associated with it. Wittgenstein (1953) even challenged the Platonic
assumption that all the items to which a word applies must have
something in common. Unfortunately, there is no widely accepted
alternative to the traditional view (there is also skepticism about
meaning, at least as traditionally conceived, registered in various ways
by such prominent philosophers as Wittgenstein, Quine 1960, Davidson
1984, Putnam 1975, and Kripke 1982; for review of the debates they have
generated see Hale and Wright 1997, chs. 8 and 14-17). Psychological
approaches based on prototypes or on semantic networks, as well as
COGNITIVE LINGUISTICS, seem to sever the connection between meaning
and reference. The most popular philosophical approaches to sentence
meaning, such as truth-conditional, model-theoretic, and POSSIBLE
WORLDS SEMANTICS, also have their limitations. They seem ill-equipped
to distinguish meanings of expressions that necessarily apply in the
same circumstances or to handle non-truth-conditional aspects of
Here are some foundational questions about meaning, as difficult as they
1. What are meanings?
2. What is it for an expression to have meaning?
3. What is it to know the meaning(s) of an expression?
(More generally, what is it to understand a language?)
4. What is the relationship between the (or a) meaning of an
expression and what (if anything) it refers to?
5. What is the relationship between the (or a) meaning of a
complex expression and the meanings of its constituents?
An answer to question 1 would say whether meanings are psychological,
social, or abstract, although many philosophers would balk at the
question, claiming that meanings are not entities in their own right,
and insist that answering 2 would take care of question 1. An answer to
3 would help answer 2, for what expressions mean cannot be separated
from (and is perhaps reducible to) what people take them to mean. And
question 4 bears on 3. It was formerly assumed that the speaker's
internal state underlying his knowledge of the meaning of a term
determines the term's reference, but Putnam's (1975) influential TWIN
EARTH thought experiments have challenged this "internalist" or
"individualist" assumption. In reaction, Chomsky (1986, 1995) and Katz
(1990) have defended versions of internalism about knowledge of language
Question 5 points to the goal of linguistic theory: to provide a
systematic account of the relation between form and meaning. SYNTAX is
concerned with linguistic form (including LOGICAL FORM, needed to
represent scope relationships induced by quantificational phrases and
modal and other operators), SEMANTICS with how form maps onto linguistic
meaning. The aim is to characterize the semantic contributions made by
different types of expression to sentences in which they occur. The
usual strategy is to seek a systematic, recursive way of specifying the
meaning(s) of a complex expression (a phrase or sentence) in terms of
the meaning(s) of its constituents and its syntactic structure (see
Larson and Segal 1995 for a detailed implementation). Underlying this
strategy is the principle of semantic COMPOSITIONALITY, which seems
needed to explain how a natural language is learnable (but see Schiffer
1987). But there are difficulties for compositionality, e.g. regarding
the philosophically puzzling cases of conditional sentences and
propositional attitude ascriptions, as well as various constructions of
concern to linguists, such as genitive and adjectival modification. For
example, although 'Rick's team' is a so-called possessive phrase, Rick's
team need not be the team Rick owns--it might be the team he plays for,
coaches, or just roots for (not that any relation will do). Or consider
how the force of the adjective 'fast' varies in the phrases 'fast car,'
'fast driver,' 'fast track,' and 'fast race' (see Pustejovsky 1995 for a
computational approach to such problems).
The study of speaker's meaning belongs to PRAGMATICS. What a speaker
means in uttering a sentence is not just a matter of what his words
mean, for he might mean something other than or more than what he says.
For example, one might use "You're another Shakespeare" to mean that
someone has little literary ability and "The door is over there" to mean
not only that but also that the person should leave. The listener has to
figure out such things, and also resolve any AMBIGUITY or VAGUENESS in
the utterance and identify the references of any INDEXICALS AND
DEMONSTRATIVES. GRICE (1989) ingeniously proposed that communicating
involves a distinctive sort of audience-directed intention: that one's
audience is to recognize one's intention partly on the supposition that
they are intended to recognize it. This idea, which has important
applications to GAME THEORY (communication is a kind of cooperative
game), is essential to explaining how a speaker can make himself
understood even if he does not make fully explicit what he means, as in
IMPLICATURE. Understanding a speaker is not just a matter of
understanding his words but of identifying his communicative intention.
One must rely not just on knowledge of their linguistic meaning but also
on collateral information that one can reasonably take the speaker to be
intending one to rely on (see Bach and Harnish 1979 for a detailed
account). Communication is essentially an intentional-inferential
affair, and linguistic meaning is just the input
to the inference.
see also INDIVIDUALISM, NARROW CONTENT, SENSE AND REFERENCE,
THEORIES OF REFERENCE
Bach, K and R. M. Harnish, 1979, *Linguistic Communication and
Speech Acts*. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Chomsky, N., 1986, *Knowledge of Language*. New
Chomsky, N., 1995, 'Language and nature.' *Mind*
Davidson, D., 1984, *Essays on Truth and Interpretation*. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Grice, P., 1989, *Studies in the Way of Words*. Cambridge, Mass.,
Harvard University Press.
Hale, B. and C. Wright, eds., 1997, *The Blackwell Companion to
the Philosophy of Language*. Oxford: Blackwell
Katz, J. J., 1990, *The Metaphysics of Meaning*. Cambridge, Mass.:
Kripke, S., 1982, *Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language*.
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Larson, R., & G. Segal. 1995, *Knowledge of Meaning*. Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press.
Lyons, J., 1995, *Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction*. Cambridge,
Eng.: Cambridge University Press.
Pustejovksy, J., 1995, *The Generative Lexicon*. Cambridge, Mass.:
Putnam, H., 1975, 'The meaning of "meaning".' In *Language, Mind, and
Knowledge*, K. Gunderson, ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, pp. 131-193.
Quine, W.V., 1960, *Word and Object*. Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press.
Schiffer, S., 1972, *Meaning*. Oxford: Oxford University
Schiffer, S., 1987, *The Remnants of Meaning*. Cambridge, Mass.:
Wittgenstein, L., 1953, *Philosophical Investigations*. New York: