On Philosophy

July 4, 2006

Two Kinds of Meaning

Filed under: Intentionality,Language — Peter @ 12:06 am

There is a fair amount of confusion about the meaning of words, which is made even more difficult by the topic’s connections with intentionality. In order to do away with some of these problems I propose dividing the concept that we call meaning into two different terms: objective meaning and personal meaning. Objective meaning captures how a word represents real states of affairs (or kinds of states of affairs), and by extension how it is used in the “language game” as well. In contrast personal meaning reflects what a word means to someone. Discussing the personal meaning of words involves dealing with the subjective experience of meaning, and with how the meaning of words is connected with the mental states of individuals. (For example my earlier post on meaning was about the personal meaning of words, not their objective meaning).

I think that the for the most part our pre-analytic conception of meaning is closer to what I will define here as objective meaning. Frege defined the objective meaning of word as how it contributed to the truth-value of a sentence. Although there have been minor revisions to the idea I think this basic premise captures fairly well our expectations about objective meaning. For example using this idea we can say that two words mean the same thing when one can be substituted for the other in all sentences if and only if the truth of those sentences remains the same after the substitution. Thus we can quickly discover that “unmarried man” and “bachelor” mean the same thing. The truth of sentences is not all there is to the objective meaning of words; I maintain that objective meaning of a word is really how it correlates with states of affairs (or some classification of states of affairs). If this is true how would it be possible for Frege’s statement to be false? This definition of objective meaning can also encompass Wittgenstein’s theory about the meaning of words, namely that the meaning of a word is defined by its use. In this context it seems Wittgenstein’s definition of meaning can be interpreted as stating how words come to correspond to states of affairs, i.e. Wittgenstein is really talking about objective meaning. Finally, the notion of objective meaning makes the writings of externalists, such as Hilary Putnam, seem reasonable (at least to me). Putnam holds that the meaning of a sentence depends on factors external to people, and this seems obvious if the kind of meaning we are talking about is objective meaning.

However when we try to extend objective meaning to encompass what is going on in someone’s mind the theory encounters serious problems. For example I might think that the dean of the university is an important person. I don’t necessarily think that Jim-Bob is an important person. However, unbeknownst to me, Jim-Bob really is the dean of the university. Since I can think one sentence is true without necessarily believing the other it seems to imply that “dean of the university” and “Jim-Bob” mean different things to me, which is exactly opposite of what a theory of objective meaning would tell us. Likewise it seems reasonable to suppose that two people may use a single word in basically the same way, but that it still has a slightly different meaning to each of them. A theory of personal meaning deals with these problems by defining meaning in terms of what is going on in the mind. (Again, see my theory of personal meaning.) Generally speaking the concept of personal meaning corresponds to the concept of meaning as used by internalists, those who hold that the meaning of a word is determined by a person’s mental states.

Another way to look at the distinction between objective meaning and personal meaning is to compare it to the syntax/semantics distinction. For the most part objective meaning corresponds to syntax. It seems reasonable that even a non-conscious machine could use words in line with their objective meaning. Personal meaning then corresponds to semantics. Personal meaning only makes sense in conjunction with a conscious being that the word can have meaning to, the very essence of semantics. It is possible that all there really is to the syntax/semantics distinction is the difference between objective meaning and personal meaning, but since I don’t have a definitive argument for this assertion yet you probably shouldn’t take my word for it.

What is the benefit to making this distinction between these types of meaning? Well for one it puts to rest the debate between internalists and externalists; it turns out that they were both right. Secondly it allows us to pursue the study of intentionality with the concept personal meaning, and the study of language and logic with the concept of objective meaning, adding clarity to both endeavors. Finally it is much more clear to readers what exactly you are talking about, and prevents you from accidentally sliding back and forth between the concepts of personal meaning and objective meaning, a mistake even I have been known to make.


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