On Philosophy

January 7, 2007

The Meaninglessness of Meaning

Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:00 am

There are some people who think that words by themselves have some intrinsic meaning, but most of us have come to accept that a word, on its own, has no meaning, and that it is only in conjunction with being who understands the language does talk about meaning become possible. Thus the mental structure that underlies our use of language has come to be seen as crucial. And I have no intention of denying this; for every word that a person knows there is some unique bundle of ideas and impressions and connections with other words. The exact nature of this bundle is, however, a topic best left to psychology and neurobiology. But most do not think that these psychological facts are all there is to language, most think that there is an additional component, that determines how these words, in combination with the psychological (and, under some theories, historical) facts, make reference to actual objects. Thus, when people speak of the meaning of a word, they mean both the psychological component and the world-referencing component (which are sometimes assumed to be the same thing). I propose that if meaning is defined this way that there is no such thing, because I would deny that there is any definite fact of the matter about what words reference.

Why might we believe that reference can be done away with so easily? Well, for one, it is epiphenomenal to (has no effect upon) actual language use. Even if the rest of the world were to disappear we could still communicate with each other (assuming we had air to breathe). The rest of the world’s absence wouldn’t affect our experience or use of language, even though there is nothing left to reference. Now this is not to say that the external world has no connection to language. Obviously our experiences play a role in our acquisition of language, helping to form the various psychological bundles that underlie our use of language. But it is the psychological facts that control language use and communication, and if we could somehow transfer these psychological features from person to person there would be no need for the external world at all in order to communicate.

But, you may ask, what about the point of communication? What about truth? I wouldn’t deny that when we use language we are (usually) attempting to talk about the external world, and that some statements are true, and some false, on the basis of the contents of that world. And for language to connect with the external world in this way worlds must be able to reference external objects. However, I would contend that the way in which a word (plus the psychological facts) references the external world is a matter of convention, that there is no fact of the matter about reference necessarily working one way or the other. Like the psychological content behind the words themselves, which is conventional (the content that makes the word “dog” mean dog to use just as well could have been associated with the word “monkey”, making it mean dog to us; it is a matter of convention that we associate it with one rather than the other), we all work with a theory of reference that is equally conventional. Now I wouldn’t claim to know exactly how we come to adopt the theory of reference we actually use. Maybe we pick it up as we learn language, or maybe it is hard-wired into us. But we could just as easily have had a different theory of reference instead; it isn’t the case that theory we happen to work with is the only possible one.

Let me illustrate this point with an example. Consider the following two theories of reference. One says that a word references the object that best fits the properties given to it by the psychological content associated with that word by an individual. The other says that the word references the object that was ultimately the cause of that psychological content. Obviously a sentence can “mean” one thing under the first of these theories, and something else under the other. Which means that the same sentence may be true under one of the theories, and false under the other. Now we can imagine two communities of people, both of whom associate the same psychological content with words, but one of which has adopted the first theory of reference and the other the second theory. (Now by adopted I mean that it has become part of their psychological makeup, part of the unconscious way they use language, not that it is something they can simply decide one day to use.) Both communities will be able to communicate, and both will be able to talk about the world. Both will be able to say that some statements are true and that others are false. And obviously there will be differences. Lets say that they explore other solar systems and find a substance that is not H2O, but is in every other way like water (including being perfectly drinkable). The first community will call it water, but the second community will have to call it something else (if the first community wants to refer to the water of just one planet they will have to quality it, as i.e. Earth’s water). And thus the statement “we have only consumed water from one solar system” will be false for the first community and true for the second. Hopefully this makes it obvious that how reference works is a matter of convention, as both communities can talk about the same things, and both can discover truths about the world, so how is it possible to say that only one of these theories is the way that reference works (without qualifying it in terms of a community)?

Of course neither theory seems to describe the theory of reference that people actually use. But I would contend that discovering what theory people actually use is not a problem for philosophy but a problem for psychology. (Since there are multiple viable theories the only way to determine the nature of the theory of reference employed by a community is to do experiments, and this is science, not philosophy.) Now determining what counts as a theory of reference in general, and what requirements it must meet to function, now that is a jobs for philosophy. But arguing about how reference works in abstract terms (which seems to have been the focus of a good portion of the philosophy of language recently) is pointless, and appealing to our linguistic intuitions to settle the matter is simply psychology done badly.

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