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.



  1. Thumbs up.

    Comment by Carl — July 4, 2006 @ 1:54 am

  2. Thanks Carl. Generally you are a tough customer, so I must have done something right with this one.

    Comment by Peter — July 4, 2006 @ 2:13 am

  3. I appreciate your site. The dualistic account you’ve proposed here would set philosophy back about 60 years. Note that Wittgenstein’s efforts are aimed at undermining correspondance theories of meaning. Incidentally, I took a course with Putnam and the man is deeply confused and changes his mind about everything every few years. I recommend Donald Davidson whose semantics addresses your problems and solves them.

    Comment by hieberto — July 4, 2006 @ 2:17 am

  4. I’m curious, can you name one way this would set philosophy back?

    Comment by Peter — July 4, 2006 @ 2:20 am

  5. The distinction you have made reaffirms the dualism analytic philosophy has been trying to overcome for the last sixty years (and contintental philosophy for much longer). You are not giving an account of how we can resolve the commonsense distinction between the normativity of language on the one hand and intentional meaning on the other, but merely proposing that keeping the two domains seperate is of some benefit. But none of the benefits you have mentioned here include solving the epistemological problems that have arisen over the past sixty years from ultimately referential theories of meaning such as your own. Nevermind readers of philosophy, how can anyone be assured that s/he is not “accidentally sliding back and forth between the concepts of personal meaning and objective meaning” when interpreting another person’s words? When do I know to invoke normative rules and when do i need to take into consideration speaker intention in order to solve for meaning?? At any rate, I think that the problems you are concerned with here have already been solved. Again, I really think you would enjoy and benefit from the essays of Donald Davidson.

    Comment by hieberto — July 4, 2006 @ 2:56 am

  6. I have already read Donald Davidson’s work to some extent, although not completely. Still, I am curious for a specific problem, because I think that if you propose them I can demonstrate why this system is not “dualistic” as you think. (It is probably not a good idea to call it dualistic anyways since that sounds like dualism, how about modal?) I haven’t asserted that personal meaning is independent from objective meaning. Indeed in past posts I have shown how one is in some ways derived from the other. What I am pointing out here is that there are two different uses of meaning, each of which has its own domain.

    Comment by Peter — July 4, 2006 @ 3:02 am

  7. First, I had only read this one post of yours (and it’s late) so i apologize if I have misattributed ideas to you. My specific problem for you is this: from the perspective of an actual interpreter (i.e. meaning in the context of its *use*) on what basis will the interpreter invoke the objective theory as opposed to the personal theory in order to assign meaning to another’s utterances? In understanding the meaning of the sentences in your post (if I have), have I relied upon a personal theory or an objective theory? If that question cannot be answered than by my lights the distinction collapses. It’s not that sometimes we rely on the world to arrive at meaning and at other times we rely on the notion of minds. We need a theory that shows how various concepts (e.g. meaning, mind truth, the external world) together can provide a semantic theory. Note that when Wittgenstein said “meaning is use” he did not mean that meaning *as a philosophical concept* has different uses depending on context. Okay, I must sleep now. THis has been fun.

    Comment by hieberto — July 4, 2006 @ 3:26 am

  8. Hieberto, it seems like you’re denying the way that meaning is used in the real world, just because we find it philosophically inconvenient. The fact is, when you read a poem or something, you cannot be sure if the author is using the word in the standard (objective) way or in a way that is personal to the author (subjective). For some authors, autumn means death, for others, autumn means harvest. How do we know which it means? The answer is that we don’t.

    We can take what we know about the author and try to guess it from there, or we can take what we know about the tradition the author works within and try to guess it from there, but there is no big glowing sign that say “This Work Means This.”

    Comment by Carl — July 4, 2006 @ 6:26 am

  9. What in the world, or what other world, am I saying? Its 1am in the morning, here in Prague. I woke up with the thought: “Just what is this relationship between the object v the subject(the subjective v the objective.) So, off I go to my computer. Its my first personal computer. At 66 years, one learns to come on to things slowly. So I googled, and I’m back in time. Here in Prague/this world/this time line. its Jan. 28, 2007. I have no idea where any of you are, or who you are. This page may be dead and buried, but I like what is being said here by everybody. All of you, seem to have agreed, to disagree on certain things, and agreed, to agree on others. Carl, got my attention when he said what he did about understanding a poem. I went to school at UNC-Chapel Hill. Often while walking across the campus I would hear some teacher say to his/her’s class sitting on the grass: “This is what the poet meant!” Now being a poet, I alway wanted to stop and ask how s/he knew what “the poet meant,” when most likely the poet did not know. In a poem there are events in which persons, places, things and ideas play and reply to the play of everything, and nothing. “Waiting For Godot,” is perhaps the most performed play in the world. Perhaps because, just when you think you understand its meaning, you realize, you don’t understand its meaning at all, but that’s why you sit there, night after night in your seat, just like the characters on the stage, you are also waiting; not so much for Godot,(who of course, never comes.) but for the meaning (of) our waiting. So why do we wait, get up at 1pm, and talk/write into a computer to people who may not be there anymore; and certainly will never come? We wait eventually, we hope or pray, for the other face in the mirror, until we finally say to ourselves: “Why?” Then we stop waiting, and start our living our lives as if each day, was the first and the last. We know finally that no one is coming to show up, or even show the way. We know:
    “Going and coming, we’re always here, and then nowhere; sitting on a log, waiting for Gog, Magog and Godot on a winters’day, watching Angels playing in the snow. Something there is about nothing. Something there is about a dream or something about you. It just won’t go away, this sense of something about nothing, and you. This now here, nowhere waiting for something, waiting for you ; on a winter’s day, watching Angels playing in the snow. I think its time to go. I think its time to really go. So, I’ll just go. I waited long enough for you, who never really waited for anyone, certainly not for me, but that’s ok too, because I never really waited for you. Its hard to say this. We met and we parted, you in your meaning and me in mine. I can only say I loved you and still do. Fare You Well, my great illusion. I need something more than a Heaven or a Hell.”
    (c)Edmund I Watts, Prague 2007.
    Thanks and so long everyone. You just gave meaning to, and to writing a poem. It means what it does to you, and what it does to me. If it has meaning otherwise, I cannot say what it might be. Edmund, in Prague, 3am Jan, 28, 2007

    Comment by Edmund — January 27, 2007 @ 7:35 pm

  10. Huh?

    Comment by Carl — January 27, 2007 @ 8:37 pm

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