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Language, Thought, and Meaning

08/15/12

Permalink 11:13:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 677 words   English (US)
Categories: Words and Meanings

Language, Thought, and Meaning

The world is permeated with a multitude of languages of all types that facilitate a wide range of communication. There is wide diversity among the world's languages in how they are communicated, how they were created, and what they are used for. What is common to all languages is that all are comprised of symbolic representations of concepts and are all used for communication. In our daily lives, we regularly communicate though sounds, bodily gestures, written text, and through other means as well. We all have experiences both in originating communication and in perceiving communication that originated with others.

Anyone reading this has the experience of understanding the meaning of what they are reading, or they at least have to think that they likely have some understanding. Everyone has certainly also come across situations where they did not understand the meaning of a certain written passage or a certain utterance made by another. So therefore it makes sense that everyone who is capable of using language at different times has both the experience of understanding the meaning of certain things and of misunderstanding certain other things. This then leads to the general question of what exactly is meaning and how one can come to understand the meaning of symbols, words, expressions, statements, utterances, and other communicative acts.

Though it may seem to some that words and sentences obviously mean what they say, this is certainly not true for every sentence and every word. There are often many interpretations of what a phrase means and a word can often have many different senses depending on the context. John Locke argued that all language begins with ideas in people's minds and these ideas are not dependent on language. He argued that we find words to express the ideas that we have in mind and when we come across language that we try to figure out what the speaker had in mind when they said what they did.

Man...had by his nature so fashioned, as to be fit to frame articulate sounds, which we call words. But this was not enough to produce language; for parrots, and several other birds, will be taught to make articulate sounds distinct enough, which yet by no means are capable of language. Besides articulate sounds, therefore, it was further necessary that he should be able to use these sounds as signs of internal conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the ideas within his own mind, whereby they might be made known to others, and the thoughts of men's minds be conveyed from one to another. (Locke, Human Understanding, Book III, Sec I)

There are more modern theories that have similarities to Locke's conception of language and meaning, the most notable of which involves one's inner thoughts being based on a language that is innate to the mind, which can be called the “language of thought” or “mentalese”. The idea that the meaning of language is derived from one's thoughts might seem obvious to some, but it contrasts with the idea that words or phrases inherently have meaning as properties of what they are. The idea that there is a language of thought is also very problematic and many philosophers have rejected this idea in favor of other theories of how meaning can be derived from language.

In the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts that will analyze the meaning of language. This series will make use of the Modern Phenomenological Method (MPhM) that I outlined in my recent series of posts on phenomenology. Several different theories of meaning will be analyzed - some of which will find the meaning of language in the words that are used or in how sentences are constructed, others attempt to dissolve the question of meaning or argue that it is insoluble. The theory of mentalese will also be explained in more detail in a future post. These posts will come every Wednesday or Thursday for the next several weeks, so keep an eye on this blog if this topic interests you.

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