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Meaning, studied in philosophy and linguistics, as well as being central to the fields of literary theory and critical theory, the philosophical field of epistemology, and some branches of psychoanalysis, is a difficult concept to pin down. Questions about how words and other signifiers mean and what it means to say a word or phrase is meaningful or nonsense are important to an understanding of language and human experience, but the answers to such questions are elusive at best.

The branches of philosophy most concerned with meanings are philosophy of language and, to a lesser degree, philosophical logic and philosophy of mind.

Linguistics is sometimes divided into three aspects: pragmatics, syntactics, and semantics, which study, respectively, the use, construction, and meanings of linguistic expressions.


Approaches in philosophy

Meaning is an important aspect of philosophy in part due to its language-intensive nature. Many philosophers, including Plato, Augustine, Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Searle, Jacques Derrida, and W.V. Quine have concerned themselves with the problem of exactly how it is that sentences mean.

Frege's philosophy of language

Modern philosophy of language began with Gottlob Frege's essay Ueber Sinn und Bedeutung (now usually translated as On Sense and Reference). Frege noted that names present several problems with respect to meaning. Suppose, as one might casually say, the meaning of a name is the thing it refers to. Sam, then, means Sam. But what if the objects referred to by the name does not exist? Is Pegasus, then, meaningless? Clearly not. There may also be two different names that refer to the same object: Hesperus and Phosphorus, for example, which were both once used to refer to the planet Venus. If the words mean the same, then subsituting one for the other in a sentence will not result in a sentence that differs in meaning form the original. But in that case "Hesperus is Phosphorus" means the same as "Hesperus is Hesperus." This is clearly absurd, since you might learn something new by the former, but not by the latter.

Frege argued 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. Alternatively, the meaning of a name has two components: the sense and the reference. Each sense will pick out a unique referent, but one referent might be picked out by more than one sense. Frege argued that, ultimately, the same bifurcation of meaning must apply to most or all linguistic categories. Ironically enough, it is now accepted by many philosophers as applying to all expressions but proper names.

Linguistic approaches

In linguistics the fields most closely associated with meaning are semantics and pragmatics. Semantics deals most directly with what words or phrases mean, and pragmatics deals with how the environment changes the meanings of words. Syntax and morphology also have a profound effect on meaning. The syntax of a language allows a good deal of information to be conveyed even when the specific words used are not known to the listener, and a language's morphology can allow a listener to uncover the meaning of a word by examining the morphemes that make it up.


The field of semantics examines the ways in which words, phrases, and sentences can have meaning. Semantics usually divides words into their sense and reference. The reference of a word is the thing it refers to: in the sentence "Give the guy sitting next to you a turn", guy refers to a specific person, in this case the male one sitting next to you. This person is the word's reference. The sense, on the other hand, is that part of the expression that helps us to determine the thing it refers to. In the example above, the sense is every piece of information that helps to determine that the expression is referring to the male human sitting next to you and not any other object. This includes any linguistic information as well as situational context, environmental details, and so on. This, however, only works for nouns and noun phrases.

When dealing with verb phrases, one approach to discovering the way the phrase means is by looking at the thematic roles the child noun phrases take on. Verbs do not point to things, but rather to the relationship between one or more nouns and some configuration or reconfiguration therein, so the meaning of a verb phrase can be derived from the meaning of its child noun phrases and the relationship between them and the verb.

Saussure, structuralism, and semiotics

Ferdinand de Saussure described language in terms of signs, which he in turn divided into signifieds and signifiers. The signifier is the sound of the linguistic object (like Socrates, Saussure didn't much concern himself with the written word). The signified, on the other hand, is the mental construction or image associated with the sound. The sign, then, is essentially the relationship between the two.

Signs themselves exist only in opposition to other signs, which means that bat has meaning only because it is not cat or rat or hat. This is because signs are essentially arbitrary, as any foreign language student is well aware: there is no reason that bat couldn't mean "that bust of Napoleon over there" or "this body of water". Since the choice of signifiers is ultimately arbitrary, the meaning cannot somehow be in the signifier. Saussure instead defers meaning to the sign itself: meaning is ultimately the same thing as the sign, and meaning means that relationship between signified and signifier. This, in turn, means that all meaning is both within us and communal. Signs mean by reference to our internal lexicon and grammar, and despite their being a matter of convention, that is, a public thing, signs can only mean to the individual - what red means to one person may not be what red means to another. However, while meanings may vary to some extent from individual to individual, only those meanings which stay within a boundary are seen by other speakers of the language to refer to reality: if one were to refer to smells as red, most other speakers would assume the person is talking nonsense (although statements like this are common among synaesthetics).

People involved in structuralism and semiotics

Roland Barthes -- Umberto Eco -- Charles Peirce -- Claude LÚvi-Strauss -- Ferdinand de Saussure


Pragmatics studies the ways that context affects meaning. The two primary forms of context important to pragmatics are linguistic context and situational context.

Linguistic context refers to the language surrounding the phrase in question. The importance of linguistic context becomes exceptionally clear when looking at pronouns: in most situations, the pronoun him in the sentence "Joe also saw him" has a radically different meaning if preceded by "Jerry said he saw a guy riding an elephant" than it does if preceded by "Jerry saw the bank robber" or "Jerry saw your dog run that way".

Situational context, on the other hand, refers to every non-linguistic factor that affects the meaning of a phrase. Nearly anything can be included in the list, from the time of day to the people involved to the location of the speaker or the temperature of the room. An example of situational context at work is evident in the phrase "it's cold in here", which can either be a simple statement of fact or a request to turn up the heat, depending on, among other things, whether or not it is believed to be in the listener's power to affect the temperature.

When we speak we perform speech acts. A speech act has an illocutionary point or illocutionary force. For example, the point of an assertion is to represent the world as being a certain way. The point of a promise is to put oneself under an obligation to do something. The illucutionary point of a speech act must be distinguished from its perlocutionary effect, which is what it brings about. A request, for example, has as its illocutionary point to direct someone to do something. Its perlocutionary effect may be the doing of the thing by the person directed. Sentences in different grammatical moods, the declarative, imperative, and interrogative, tend to perform speech acts of specific sorts. But in particular contexts one may perform a different speech act using them than that for which they are typically put to use. Thus, as noted above, one may use a sentence such as "it's cold in here" not only to make an assertion but also to request that one's auditor turn up the heat. Speech acts include performative utterances, in which one performs the speech act by using a first person present tense sentence which says that one is performing the speech act. Examples are: 'I promise to be there', 'I warn you not to do it', 'I advise you to turn yourself in', etc. Some specialized devices for performing speech acts are exclamatives and phatics, such as 'Ouch!' and 'Hello!', respectively. The former is used to perform an expressive speech act, and the latter for greeting someone.

Pragmatics, then, reveals that meaning is both something affected by and affecting the world. Meaning is something contextual with respect to language and the world, and is also something active toward other meanings and the world.

People involved in pragmatics

J. L. Austin -- Paul Grice -- John Searle

See also

causal theory of names -- Noam Chomsky -- definite description -- General Semantics -- idea -- image -- information -- Saul Kripke -- logical positivism -- the meaning of meaning -- metaphor -- ordinary language philosophy -- Bertrand Russell -- semiotics -- sense -- P. F. Strawson -- symbol -- theory of descriptions -- universal grammar

Further reading

  • Akmajian, Adrian, Richard Demers, Ann Farmer, and Robert Harnish. Linguistics: an introduction to language and communication, 4th edition. 1995. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Austin, J. L. How to Do Things With Words. 1962. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Davidson, Donald. Inquiries into Truth and Meaning, 2nd edition. 2001. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Dummett, Michael. Frege: Philosophy of Language, 2nd Edition. 1981. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Frege, Gottlob. The Frege Reader. Edited by Michael Beaney. 1997. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Grice, Paul. Studies in the Way of Words. 1989. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Searle, John and Daniel Vanderveken. Foundations of Illocutionary Logic. 1985. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Searle, John. Speech Acts. 1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Searle, John. Expression and Meaning. 1979. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stonier, Tom: Information and Meaning. An Evolutionary Perspective. 1997. XIII, 255 p. 23,5 cm.

External links

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