Can There Be a Theory of Meaning?

Can There Be a Theory of Meaning?

I will do what is never done: list all the important properties of meaning, in no particular order. First, meaning is combinatorial: meanings combine to form phrase-like and sentence-like structures. Second, meanings are world-correlated: they refer, link to reality, represent how things are. Third, they are use-determining: what a word means fixes its use. Fourth, meaning is truth-related: meanings fix the truth conditions of sentences. Fifth, meanings vary in type: they are different for different types of word (names, predicates, connectives, etc.). Sixth, meanings are precise, specific, fine-grained, discriminating: they track distinctions in reality (and beyond). Seventh, they are graspable by minds: it is possible for some types of minds (not all) to apprehend and understand them. Eighth, they have a history: they have a past, a present, and a future; they can come and go, and change over time. Ninth, they are tied to grammar (syntax): there are grammatical rules governing their normal expression (word order, embedding, etc.). Tenth, they are normative: there are right and wrong ways of combining them (or their linguistic expression), and of applying them. Eleventh, they are capable of forming nonsense: there is no guarantee that combining them will make sense. Twelfth, they are communicable: you can convey to another person what you mean; they are not generally private. Thirteenth, they are invisible and impalpable: they can’t be sensed by the human senses. Fourteenth, meanings are cognitive (not affective): they belong to the ratiocinative part of the mind (though they can link with the affective part). Fifteenth, they are thought-related: they enter into the contents of thought and are used in thought processes. Sixteenth, they are connected to knowledge: they are both known in themselves and vehicles of knowledge. Seventeenth, they are potentially infinite: they can be combined to produce an infinite totality of meanings (the idea of infinity is built into them). Nineteenth, they can interact with context to generate further meanings: this is particularly evident with indexical expressions. Twentieth, they are connected to logic: whether an inference is valid depends on the meanings of the elements composing the inference. Twenty-first, meanings are embedded in sensorimotor systems: they can be the objects of both hearing (seeing, touching) and speaking (with voice or signs). Twenty-second, meanings are (or can be) musical: they have rhythm and melody (it isn’t just words considered apart from their meaning). Thus, meaning is multifaceted, protean, and promiscuous; it has its fingers in many pies, and its fingers are highly adaptable. It isn’t simple. It can’t be quickly and easily summed up. What have philosophers, psychologists, and linguists had to say about it? Frege stressed the meaning-world connection (sense and reference, truth). Wittgenstein stressed the meaning-behavior connection (use, language games, communication). Russell stressed the meaning-mind connection (sense-data, acquaintance). Chomsky stressed the meaning-grammar connection (combination according to rules). Grice stressed the meaning-intention connection (speaker meaning and sentence meaning). Psycholinguists stress the sensorimotor links of meaning (reception and production of speech). Austin stressed the meaning-speech act connection (performatives, perlocutionary effects). Quine stressed the meaning-ontology connection (quantifiers and existential commitment). Davidson stressed the meaning-logic connection (logical form, recursive structure, truth conditions). Lewis Carroll stressed the meaning-nonsense connection. All these connections exist and are well worth studying. Some excellent results have been obtained. But there is nothing we could call a unified semantic theory: there is no theory that captures all the aspects of meaning itemized. There is no one concept that can be used to tie it all together (truth, verification, use, etc.). Indeed, a survey of the multiple aspects of meaning suggests that nothing could constitute such a theory; the most we can hope for is sub-theories dealing with meaning’s several aspects (dimensions, properties). Compare matter: is there a single unified theory of matter? Notoriously not: gravitational theory will not mesh with electromagnetic theory. Physics thus deals with matter in two separate branches (and it doesn’t deal with every aspect of matter, e.g., its aesthetic properties). So why should the “theory of meaning” admit of unified treatment? Similarly, must there be a unified “theory of mind”? There certainly isn’t one, despite some valiant (and less than valiant) attempts: what we call “the mind” is just too various for that to be possible. So, we should really accustom ourselves to something less all-encompassing in meaning studies—theories dealing with specific aspects of meaning.[1] For meaning (to repeat) isn’t simple; it isn’t some kind of ontological primitive. It isn’t conceptually one-dimensional. Whoever thought it was?[2]

[1] As an example of different sub-theories of meaning, consider Frege’s theories of the meaning-world connection and of the combinatorial nature of meaning. The first employs the apparatus of sense and reference; the second employs the apparatus of function and argument—each addressed to different properties of meaning. They are logically independent. He also had separate theories of what he called tone and force. He didn’t try to do it all with one concept.

[2] The musical and nonsensical aspects of meaning have been relatively neglected. The linguistic and musical parts of the human brain are evidently connected, but the same is not true of other animals. Why this should be is something of a mystery. In song (and poetry to some degree) they come magically together: words become lyrics associated with melody (pitch patterns). In the case of nonsense, we have a bit of a paradox: the things equipped to form meaningful wholes can readily fall into sheer nonsense, and we like the result (hence the popularity of Lewis Carroll). They are, so to speak, perpetually on the brink of nonsense, only too ready to tip into it. We can imagine beings that speak only nonsense and are happy with that. Meanings have meaninglessness built into them, contrary to what we might expect given their original purpose. The meaningless is just the flipside of the meaningful, its shadow or sibling.

4 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Did you compile this list in one sitting? If so, very impressive.

    As you note, meaning can be expressed in so many ways, taking on the particular quality or timbre of its medium of expression (be that of prose, poetry, music, art, mathematics, psychological states). However, meaning also seems to transcend the specific form or mode of expression it takes. When a phrase like “the search for meaning” is used, it is as if meaning is intended to have an existence independent of a specific form. Is that actually possible? It is difficult to imagine from the perspective of the perceiving mind – by which I mean the aspect of the mind that requires something to take a form for it to exist. So perhaps a conception of meaning independent of a particular form is just a fictional abstraction. Or, we could speculate that there is another aspect of the mind, always present, but not perceived, which is the aspect in/out of which the meaning of a perceived form resonates. The meaning of meaning remains, for me at least, elusive.


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