On Denoting and Connoting

On Denoting and Connoting

There is something amiss with our standard terminology. And it covers actual confusion. I propose to straighten all this out.[1] The standard way of talking assigns a denotation and a connotation to definite descriptions (sometimes also to names and demonstratives): the denotation of a description is the object it refers to (if it refers), while the connotation consists of the properties expressed by the embedded predicates. In other terminology, the denotation is the extension and the connotation is the intension (the meaning, intuitively). This does not conform to the dictionary definition of these terms or their common usage. The OEDdefines “connotation” thus: “an idea or feeling which a word invokes in addition to its primary meaning”, following this with “Philosophy the abstract meaning of a term, determining which object or concept it applies to”. These two definitions are at odds with each other: the former speaks of contingent associations with thoughts and feelings that are not part of the “primary meaning” of the expression; the latter identifies connotation with primary meaning. This is very explicit in the definition for “connote”: “(of a word) imply or suggest (an idea or feeling) in addition to the primary or literal meaning”. This makes connotation extrinsic to meaning, while the philosophical definition makes it intrinsic to meaning. Clearly, the philosophical definition has deformed the vernacular meaning. What word does philosophy have for those suggested ideas and feelings that are merely associated with the term? The OED (concise edition) definition of “denote” gives us simply “be a sign of; indicate”; for “denotation” the Shorter OED gives us “the meaning or signification of a term, as distinct from its implications or connotations”. So, the denotation of a term can just be its conventional meaning not the object the term stands for or refers to. If we use “denotes” in this way, we can say that a definite description denotes the properties denoted by the predicates contained in it, i.e., what those predicates mean—not its ordinary reference. In other words, the connotation in the philosophical sense is the denotation in the vernacular sense. You see what I mean about the oddity of our standard philosophical use of these terms? It is really not true to say that meaning is constituted by connotation; what is true is that it is constituted by denotation. Since every word has a meaning, it has a denotation in the ordinary sense. The sense of a word, using Frege’s terminology, is its denotation; connotation doesn’t come into it, except as a kind of secondary meaning. That would seem to be the more accurate and natural way of speaking.

What is called by philosophers the denotation actually belongs with the connotation as normally understood, in that both belong to extrinsic contingent features of the term, more alluded to than actually expressed. I mean that the reference is not strictly part of what the term means, just like the connotation; both need not even exist in order for the term to have its usual meaning. You can vary the reference or the connotation and keep the meaning fixed. We might say that reference and connotation are alluded to or signified or intended by the use of the term (not by the term itself), but they are not aspects of its strict and literal meaning. They form the penumbra of the term’s meaning, piggybacking on it, not its core or nucleus. Both are indicated, even referred to, by the speaker—they are intended objects of speech. But they are not denoted by the term considered in itself; they might be removed without detriment to the term’s “primary meaning”. We could almost say that the reference in this sense is part of the term’s connotation: it connotes that object, suggests it, implies it, points towards it. If I know that Benjamin Franklin was the inventor of bifocals, then that description connotes the idea of Benjamin Franklin to me, even though that idea is not part of its strict meaning. Thus, rightly considered, connotation becomes denotation and denotation becomes connotation. A definite description denotes the properties that constitute its meaning, and it connotes an object that is not part of its meaning. According to Russell’s theory of descriptions, then, the denotation of a description is the property or set of properties denoted by its predicates, not the object indirectly alluded to by those predicates. It isn’t that the description has no denotation—for it has a meaning—but rather that its denotation is other than we tend to suppose. We thought (with Meinong and Frege) that its denotation was its intended object of reference, but in fact, as Russell’s analysis reveals, the only denoting going on is being performed by the predicates in relation to the properties they express. Meaning is always denotational, trivially so, but the denotation need not be a concrete object like a man or a mountain. The revealed logical form of the description tells us that its meaning consists in denoting properties not objects. That is the real lesson of the theory of descriptions once the terminology is straightened out. There is not denotational meaning and connotational meaning; there is just denotational meaning. Even if objects do sometimes constitute meaning (“logically proper names”), there is still just denotational meaning across the board—the entities may vary from expression to expression but not the meaning-constituting relation. Words always signify—denote–meanings, though it is possible for different kinds of things to be meanings. The contentious question has been what kinds of denotation words possess, not whether some words mean by denoting while others mean by connoting. That whole way of thinking and speaking is misconceived.

If we look at the extension of a predicate, we see clearly what is going on. The extension of a predicate is not its denotation; the property (or concept) it expresses is. The extension is extrinsic to the meaning and can vary ad libitum; it is more like connotation in the ordinary sense. The property determines the extension (in a world), but the two are quite distinct entities. Similarly, the property also at least partially determines the ideas and feelings connoted by the term in question (e.g., the property of being a snake). So, there is a definite relation between denotation, on the one hand, and extension and connotation, on the other. Still, it is denotation that is semantically primary, i.e., what the word strictly and literally means. In the case of whole sentences, we may say that their truth-value corresponds to the connotation side of things (what Frege would call their Bedeutung), while the proposition they express corresponds to the denotation side (alternatively, the states of affairs corresponding to them). Sentences thus denote (mean) propositions but merely allude to truth-values—intend them, point to them, contain them in their penumbra. The two don’t stand in the denotation relation but only in the “connotation” relation; we might say that they are “correlated”. But propositions are clearly integral to sentence meaning and hence are correctly said to be denoted by sentences. The extension of a sentence (its truth-value) is thus not its denotation; the intension of a sentence is. Sentences denote their intensions but not their extensions. Similarly, the truth-table of a connective is not its denotation but rather a part of its “connotation” in the extended sense; the denotation will be the function directly expressed by the connective (as it might be, the negation function). Denotations have penumbras or correlates or associations (ideas and feelings, references, extensions, truth-values, truth-tables), but they are always separate and autonomous. We should not confuse the two or mislabel them.  The whole point of the denotation/connotation distinction is to separate what is internal to a word’s meaning from what is external to it; it does no good to force connotation into the heart of word meaning. We have inherited a misleading nomenclature and need to dispense with it.[2]

[1] Prepare yourself for a wild ride. We are going to break some bones, destroy some shibboleths, upset some apple carts. Expect dizziness.

[2] It is actually quite difficult to break the hold of the old nomenclature if one has been steeped in it for long enough, as I have been. We have to fight off the usual interpretation of “denotation” in classic philosophy of language. The word “denotes” has become an entrenched term of art in logic and philosophy of language, but it is a distortion and a source of wrongheadedness. It is to be noted that there is no vernacular term that means just what philosophers intend to mean by “denotes”; it is a neologism. Speakers refer not words; denotation is supposed to be something that words can do off their own bat. They can, but only if the term is taken in the vernacular sense as equivalent to “meaning”.

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