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How Does Language Have Meaning? Part 1: Reference

08/22/12

Permalink 08:33:00 pm, by Norgaard Norgaard Email , 804 words   English (US)
Categories: Words and Meanings

How Does Language Have Meaning? Part 1: Reference

Last week's post introduced the problem of meaning and language. This problem might be summed up with the questions:

  • “How does language have meaning?”
  • “What is the relationship between a word, phrase, sentence or symbol in language and things that they are supposed to refer to?”
  • “If words, phrases, sentences or symbols in a language have meaning, then how can one come to know this meaning?”

There have been many theories regarding the meaning of language and many ways of answering these questions. As a part of this series of posts on meaning and language, I will be describing a few of these theories. I'll start today by explaining a little about two of the most basic theories – direct reference and mediated reference.

Direct Reference

The simplest theory of meaning is that words directly refer to things in the world. For example, “bird” refers to all birds that exist or ever existed, “Cicero” refers to the Roman statesman from ancient times, and “white” refers to all things that are white. 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill was an advocate of this theory of meaning. Mill argued that proper names have no meaning above and beyond the object to which it refers. This theory of meaning might be the first thing that comes to mind when many people first think about how language has meaning, but it quite quickly falls apart when the implications of this theory become clear.

Mediated Reference

In the late 19th century, Gottlob Frege provided some very influential examples that seem to show that words and expressions do not directly refer to objects and that instead a word or expression can have multiple senses, each of which might refer to different objects. For example, the name “Tom Sawyer” can either refer to the novel written by Mark Twain (as an abbreviation for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) or to the character that is featured in this and other books. Using the most common way of translating Frege's terminology into English, “Tom Sawyer” can be said to have at least those two senses, each of which have their own referents (the novel and the character respectively). Likewise different expressions can have the same referent, such is the case with “the morning star” and “the evening star” both having a sense that refers to the planet Venus. This is equivalent to saying that both of these phrases have the same nominatum (again, the planet Venus). As Frege explains in “On Sense and Nominatum”:

Now it is plausible to connect with a sign (name, word combination, expression) not only the designated object, which may be called the nominatum of the sign, but also the sense (connotation, meaning) of the sign in which is contained the manner and context of presentation...The nominata of 'evening star' and 'morning star' are the name but not their senses.

Frege's mediated reference theory was influential because it is easy to intuitively realize that a given expression can often have multiple senses and that expressions that are, in a literal sense, quite different can nonetheless have senses that refer to the same object. Most people who read examples similar to those in Frege's writings can easily understand that, at the very least, direct reference is not a workable theory of meaning. There is significant disagreement, however, regarding whether signs (expressions, etc.) actually have senses and if so, how one can come to know about these senses. A sense, after all, is not something one can find in the world. One can find signs of all types, including letters, words, sentences, sounds, etc. One can also find all kinds of objects that these signs are supposed to indirectly refer to. But finding clear evidence of some entity, either one that matches Frege's definition of a sense or anything else, that somehow connects signs to objects is far more difficult.

Therefore it seems that if senses do exist then the main factor that determines the different possible senses that a sign has is not something that can be studied objectively. If people often come to agree with Frege's arguments because they seem intuitively reasonable, then the driving force that determines the senses that a sign has would probably have to be one's intuition or some other mental content or mental activity. This then seems to imply that meaning is subjective and that therefore signs do not actually have senses, or nominata for that matter, as a part of what they are, but these senses are only determined by what people think about these signs and what they experience in relation to these signs.

In the coming weeks, I'll be explaining several more theories of language and meaning. Some of the theories will take an approach that emphasizes one's thoughts and intuition, while others try to identify an objective basis for communicative meaning.

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