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The Theory of Meaning in Language – A Rapid Summary

November 29, 2019

The theory of meaning in philosophy is a critical area where a stand can be held to defend the preeminence of a certain philosophical way of reasoning and debating over other accounts. On one side psychology tries to impinge by reducing meaning to behaviour. And some philosophers acquiesce with this approach such as J.B. Watson and W.V.O. Quine. The import of his indeterminacy of translation argument is that internally grasped semantic meaning adds nothing to language beyond what we can learn from an externalised scientific perspective. And that rather than language depending on introspective meanings, publically shared meanings depend on language.

On another side it is claimed that there can be a science of language itself to account for meaning by finding some sort of universal grammar as in Chomsky. And a third approach, and the most common has been for philosophers to retreat to some variation of meaning as use, and focus on common linguistic uses and use this as a standard for determining meaning. Wittgenstein being the initial inspiration for this. But this approach was taken much further by Oxford philosophers starting from J.L. Austin, who in his turn influenced Strawson and his linguistic interpretations of Russell’s theory of descriptions and John Searle and his development of speech acts theory.

What has become lost in this is an appreciation of a theory of meaning as connecting us to reality in some way. Even Searle, who adheres to the doctrine of direct realism, doesn’t have a theory of meaning to defend it, rather he only defends it on the grounds of common sense in line with naive realism. No comprehensive theory of how language comes to connect meaningfully with this reality is given. Instead he starts from conventional speech acts and meaning as use on one side and objects and things of science on the other, hoping that somewhere in the middle they will meet to do justice to the semantic meaning we take for granted in common sense.

I am not sure, we can have confidence that they are going to meet up by magic. I think we need instead to look into providing full theories of the meaning in language, in order that philosophical arguments can have authority beyond appeal to common usage or deference to scientific wisdom about one particular object or another. We require a meaning that connects our arguments, claims and propositions, as individuals, up directly to a reality that they can be independently tested and reasoned about against. It is the only way to avoid stagnation in philosophy and so it is why what we think about meaning in language is one of the central prongs of a good philosophy.

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