Theories of Meaning

9 September 2016

The main concepts in the theory of reference are naming, truth, denotation (or truth of), and extension. Another is the notion of values of variables. All the notions of the theory of meaning are out of the same box. There are several theories of meaning, such as Referential Theory, Ideational Theory, Use Theory, and Behavioural Theory. 1. The Referential Theory The theory of meaning which relates the meaning of a word to the thing it refers to, or stands for, is known as the referential theory. This theory was first expounded by Aristotle in the fourth century BC.

It is generally possible to explain the meaning of a word by pointing to the thing it refers to. In the case of proper nouns and definite noun phrases, this is especially true. When we say “The most famous English poet is William Shakespeare”, we do use “the most famous English poet” and “William Shakespeare” to mean a particular person. When we explain the meaning of desk by pointing to the thing it refers to, we do not mean a desk must be of the particular size, shape, colour and material as the desk we are pointing to at the moment of speaking.

Theories of Meaning Essay Example

We are using this particular desk as an example, an instance, of something more general. That is, there is something behind the concrete thing we can see with our eyes. And that something is abstract, which has no existence in the material world and can only be sensed in our minds. By saying desk is “a piece of furniture with a flat top and four legs, at which one reads and writes”, we are in resorting to the concept of desk, or summarizing the main features, the defining properties, of a desk. But not every word has a reference.

Grammatical words like but, if, and do not refer to anything. And words like God, ghost and dragon refer to imaginary things, which do not exist in reality. What is more, it is not convenient to explain the meaning of a word in terms of the thing it refers to. The thing a word stands for may not always be at hand at the time of speaking. Even when it is nearby, it may take the listener some time to work out its main features. For example, when one sees a computer for the first time, one may mistake the monitor for its main component, thinking that a computer is just like a TV set.

This Referential Theory of linguistic meaning would explain the significance of all expressions in terms of their having been conventionally associated with things or states of affairs in the world, and it would explain a human being’s understanding a sentence in terms of that person’s knowing what the sentence’s component words refer to. It is a natural and appealing view. Indeed it may seem obviously correct, at least so far as it goes. And one would have a hard time denying that reference or naming is our cleanest-cut and most familiar relation between a word and the world.

Yet when examined, the Referential Theory has some problems: * Not every word refers to an actual thing. First, some words don’t refer to anything that exists. “Pegasus” does not denote anything real, because there is no winged horse after all * Referential Theory treats a sentence as a list of names for things to which the words refer. But a list of names says nothing: “William Shakespeare England” The meaning cannot be understood, if the sentence is not grammatically correct. * There is more to meaning than reference.

Some words can refer to the same thing but not share the same meaning, for example “Elizabeth II” and “the Queen. ” 2. The Ideational (Mental Image) Theory The 17th-century British linguist John Locke held that linguistic meaning is mental: words are used to encode and convey thoughts, or ideas. Successful communication requires that the hearer correctly decode the speaker’s words into their associated ideas. The meaning of an expression, according to Locke, is the idea associated with it in the mind of anyone who knows and understands that expression.

This theory of meaning associates the meaning of a particular word with a particular idea in the human mind. But the ideational account of meaning, as Locke’s view is sometimes called, is vulnerable to several objections. For example, a person’s idea of “grass” can be associated in his mind with the idea of “warm weather”. But the meaning of “grass” or any other word may be different for each person. As the example shows, the ideational account ignores the “public” nature of meaning. Whatever meanings are, they must be things that different speakers can learn from and share with one another.

If we suppose that a person associates the complex expression “brown cow” with the idea of fear, though he is not fearful of all brown things or of all cows—only brown cows. Thus, the meaning of “brown cow”, for this person, is not determined by or predictable from the meanings of “brown” and “cow”. Because the example can be generalized (anyone can associate any idea with any complex expression), it follows that the ideational account is unable to explain the compositionality of natural languages. These mental representations differ a lot among different persons.

If one person hears the word strawberry, an image of an appetizing dessert plate – possibly covered with lots of whipped cream – might pop up. Another person might prefer them with powder sugar, and another one without any topping at all. Or one might even be disgusted by the idea of strawberries, because of a severe allergic reaction in the past. To be practically usable, the ideas need to have some generality, exceeding the individual level. But it is difficult to achieve this generalization without resorting to the notion of idea in the platonic sense that is somehow mysteriously present in people’s minds.

A mental image theory cannot assure that speakers of the same language carry the same mental image for any given concept. To the extent that one speaker’s mental image of a “grandmother” is different from that of another speaker, the theory cannot explain our ability to communicate via language. A mental image theory predicts the possibility that every speaker has their own private language. If mental images do not supply the critical distinctions necessary for meaning another possibility would be that humans rely on a set of innate semantic features to construct meaning.

The mental images we have for simple properties (such as red, hot, sour, etc. ) can never be stated. We simply cannot describe the meaning of the word “red” by using other words. If we could, then someone who has been blind since birth would know what red means by hearing a description of our mental image, which is impossible. 3. The Use Theory A radically different theory of meaning qualifies the meaning of an expression as its use in a language system. The Use Theory was developed in the 20th century be Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Austin.

The Use Theory of meaning does not refer to an external entity (a referent, an idea, or stimuli and responses) to qualify a word’s meaning, but instead qualifies the meaning of a word as the value it gets through the linguistic system in which it is used. Many words do refer to things, and that many words have a mental image or idea associated with them, but the primary bearers of meaning are not words but sentences. Words have meaning only when they are used in sentences: without such a context they have no meaning.

When we ask what some particular word means, we seem to be asking from the way it’s used in the sentence. In fact, the only meaning a word can have is the meaning it gains from the meaning of the sentences in which the word is typically used. The following sentences show how the different meanings of a word are expressed by using that word in different sentences: I gave him a hand with his baggage. (i. e. help) The crowd gave him a hand. (i. e. applause) Please hand me the scissors. (i. e. give) She is a green lawyer. (i. e. inexperienced) He is looking green. i. e. nauseous) We had a green Christmas last year. (i. e. without snow) But if the meaning of sentences is primary and the meaning of words is derivative – we cannot derive the meaning of a sentence from the meanings of sentences. Wittgenstein and Austin held that the meaning of sentences is to be found in their use. Language is a tool, and just as we don’t really know what a hammer is until we know what it is being used to do. In order to know what a particular sentence means we need to ask, “What is this speaker in this particular context using this sentence? If someone says “Hold it”, we cannot know what the sentence means until we know what the speaker means. Did the speaker say “Hold it” to get someone to stop doing something, or to instruct someone to grasp hold of an object? Only when we have answered this question, we will know what the sentence means. It is important to pay attention to the context, for the context typically gives us the clues we need to determine what the speaker is using a sentence to do, and what the sentence means.

There are various contextual features we can make use of, such as the social setting, the speaker’s personal goals, the nature and expectations of the audience, and what has just been said by other speaker. Changing the context of a sentence can sometimes dramatically affect its meaning. For example: The queen is in a vulnerable position: (a) when said by a spectator at a chess match and (b) when said by a teacher in a lecture on the role of monarchy in Britain. The President has been shot and died a few minutes ago: (a) when said by a character in a film and (b) when said by a radio announcer in a news broadcast.

Let me go: (a) when said by a person whose arm has been grabbed by someone and (b) when said by a child, whose teacher has asked for a volunteer to run an errand. More commonly context affects meaning in equally dramatic ways. Usually, there are only a few possible uses of a sentence in any particular context, and we can make reasonable judgment of its primary or intended use. 4. The Behavioural (Speech-Act) Theory Speech act theory is built on the foundation laid by Wittgenstein and Austin. John Searle is most often associated with the theory.

The Speech-Act theory is a theory where the effect of an utterance is analyzed in relationship to the speaker and listener’s behaviour. According to Searle, to understand language one must understand the speaker’s intention. Since language is intentional behaviour, it should be treated like a form of action. Thus Searle refers to statements as speech acts. The speech act is the basic unit of language used to express meaning, an utterance that expresses an intention. Normally, the speech act is a sentence, but it can be a word or phrase as long as it follows the rules necessary to accomplish the intention.

When one speaks, one performs an act. Speech is not just used to designate something, it actually does something. Speech act stresses the intent of the act as a whole. Understanding the speaker’s intention is essential to capture the meaning. Without the speaker’s intention, it is impossible to understand the words as a speech act. Speakers perform acts by observing two types of rules: constitutive rules or definition rules (create or define new forms of behaviour) and regulative or behaviour rules (these rules govern types of behaviour that already exist).

Theory of meaning that holds that the meaning of linguistic expressions can be explained in terms of the rules governing their use in performing various speech acts (e. g. , asserting, commanding, exclaiming, promising, questioning, requesting, warning). In contrast to theories that maintain that linguistic expressions have meaning in virtue of their contribution to the truth conditions of sentences where they occur, it explains linguistic meaning in terms of the use of words and sentences in the performance of speech acts.

The meaning of a natural language is behaviouristic: the meaning of an expression, as uttered on a particular occasion, is either the behavioural stimulus that produces the utterance, the behavioural response that the utterance produces, or a combination of both. Thus, the meaning of “fire! ” as uttered on a particular occasion might include running or calling for help. But even on a single occasion it is possible that not everyone who hears “fire! ” will respond by running or calling for help.

Suppose, for example, that the hearers of the utterance include a fireman, a pyromaniac, and a person who happens to know that the speaker is a pathological liar, the behaviour of each person is different, because the meaning of “fire! ” for some is different from the meaning of “fire! ” for those who run or call for help. Thus, the situations which prompt people to utter speech, include every object and happening in their universe. In order to give a scientifically accurate definition of meaning for every form of a language, we should have to have a scientifically accurate knowledge of everything in the speaker’s world.

Conclusion All four theories consider the referential aspects, the individual aspects, and the social aspects. The theories of meaning are evidently short of detail on several important issues, for example, the public understanding of notions, the role of context and how it functions in determining meaning, the constraints on wide frameworks, and the types of ambiguity that the theories have. There is much more, of course, to a natural language than merely being a symbolic system; such a language may even amount, through associated features.

Different theories elaborate on these in different ways and to different degrees. Bibliography 1. D. Davidson. Theories of Meaning and Learnable Languages. Oxford, 1984. 2. G. Evans . Truth and Meaning. Oxford, 1976. 3. M. Platts. Ways of Meaning. London, 1979. 4. R. Dale. The Theory of Meaning. London, 1996. 5. W. Hughes. Critical Thinking. London, 2006. Contents Introduction 1. The Referential Theory 2. The Ideational (Mental Image) Theory 3. The Use Theory 4. The Behavioural (Speech-Act) Theory Conclusion Bibliography

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