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pathways (essays)

John Dudley

Words and Meaning

How do words bear meaning? The notion that a word means what it stands for– its denotation - will be examined and found wanting because logical analysis is only able to illuminate limited areas of language. It will be then suggested that metaphysical speculations about the sort of entities named by words are at best unhelpful. The idea that words get their meaning from the way they are used in public discourse will then be introduced as potentially more useful, although some problems with this approach will also be noted. Finally it will be suggested, very briefly, that an answer to this question may best be found in the common human condition– how we operate in the world using language.

It is attractive to assume that the meaning of a word is the entity it denotes. There are many cases where this definition will do. For example in the sentence,

John sat at the table.
‘John’ denotes a person and ‘table’ denotes an object. This seems straightforward. There are sentences, however, where the meaning is apparently clear but where the entities are not so clear cut.

The sentence below has a clear meaning:

The singing was divine but the acting was wooden.

The proposition carried by this sentence is easily understood. However, the entities ‘singing’ and ‘acting’ are not so clear. They are ongoing actions not so clearly defined as tables and chairs. Furthermore, the metaphorical qualifiers ‘divine’ and ‘wooden’ do not help do not sharpen the meaning. Is ‘divine’, for example, merely a fanciful replacement for ‘enjoyable’? A whole conversation about the nature of singing and acting might follow such an utterance.

Denotation and questions of logical form do not seem to be helpful in explaining the meanings of words in ordinary talk although human beings do seem to be impelled towards rational discussion. We habitually give reasons for things. For example, a discussion about‘the greatest footballer’ often finishes with extensive debate about what the defining criteria might be (a verbal dispute about connotation). Subsequently the argument often then turns to which player best meets these criteria (arguments to establish denotation). Whatever the case the denotation for‘the greatest footballer’ is problematical. Much of this kind of discourse is based upon opinions. These opinions may or may not be true. This in no way affects the meanings intended by the speakers. Furthermore, it is certain that this ordinary talk is meaningful to the participants. The entity denoted by the term‘the greatest footballer’ may still remain problematical.

imilarly we talk about things which do not exist such as in the sentence, “The King of France is wise.” This sentence bears meaning but the phrase, ‘The King of France’ has no denotation. We understand the meaning but we have no entity. There is no King of France. We have understanding of a meaning but no denotation. Therefore meaning does not depend upon denotation.

It has been argued that to say, “The King of France is wise,” must mean that there is in fact something that must exist although it is not located in space and time. Certainly Meinong’s metaphysical stance gives rise to such a conception. He maintained that there are two modes of being for intentional objects before the mind. There is existence – things located in space and time, that is, objects in the world. There is also subsistence – property instances not located in space and time.

There are also however some intentional objects which do not exist but which have property instances such as those signified by the terms ‘the King of France is wise’ and ‘the golden mountain’. From this, it could be inferred that entities such as these must have a form of existence because they have subsistent property instances attached to them. This seems to be rather obscure. The fact remains that we can talk about unicorns, kings and golden mountains as is the case on many works of fiction but this does not make them exist. The search for new entities in this approach does not seem helpful.

Russell took a rigorous analytical approach to meaning. His answer to the ‘King of France’ problem was to redefine names as descriptions. These descriptions, he maintained, are provisional states of affairs. Thus the phrase ‘The King of France’ does not establish the existence of such an entity in the sentence ‘The King of France is wise’. The ultimate test of the meaning of this sentence is whether such an entity exists. If it does then the sentence containing it will be a true proposition. If it does not exist then the proposition is false. This renders it meaningless. On this basis, as many of the propositions of common speech and writing are about descriptions rather than names, they are not, in Russell’s sense, meaningful.

Wittgenstein also pursued the logical/analytical path in his picture theory of meaning. It was his way of characterising what we can talk about in a meaningful manner. He assumed that we picture the world in language and that this picturing is in logical form. The idea that we picture the world in words is attractive. It has two weaknesses however. One is the assumption that logical form is the form both of the world and of language. This is not necessarily the case. Nowhere does Wittgenstein set forth any arguments to support his contention that there is this isomorphism between world and language.

A second difficulty with Wittgenstein’s picture theory is the one noted above. If something is not ‘in the world’ then it cannot be ‘pictured’. In other words, only physical entities can be pictured. It is easy to see how the physical world can be pictured in this way. ‘John’ does indeed sit at the ‘table’. However, once we step outside the physical world then the picturing becomes problematical. The meanings of words in ordinary speech involving for example, feelings, emotions and value judgements cannot be explained by this theory. Wittgenstein himself recognised this:

So while the approach in the Tractatus was successful for the limited fields of natural science, Wittgenstein advises us that,

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

Thus, most fields of human discourse are ruled out of play. If this is the case then we must indeed pass over them in silence. But of course, we do not. Neither did Wittgenstein.

In his later work, he realised that the relationship of language and meaning contained something more than just denotation. At this point he referred to denotation as, ‘the idea of a language more simple than ours’. Wittgenstein placed his later analysis of language and meaning very firmly in the arena of common human speech.

Here the term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.

He also realised that the way language bears meaning cannot really be explained. We cannot actually state how something bears its meaning:

What expresses itself in language we cannot express by means of language.

If one cannot use language to talk about language and if denotation as meaning seems less than helpful then one is forced to proceed differently. Wittgenstein’s method was to look at many examples of the different ways that words and sentences are used He then concluded that the signs and sounds of language bear meaning according to their use in the many forms of public discourse. He called these, ‘forms of life’.

What has to be accepted, the given, is –so one could say – forms of life.

This is a better model of how language bears meaning. Forms of life are the various modes of public discourse. Each form has its own shared conventions which we learn by participating in them. Each provides its own linguistic rules and conventions. We learn to participate in these forms of life as we grow up. We learn the conventions of language and forms of life. The system of conventions is shared but each person operates them autonomously with remarkable skill and flexibility. We learn to use words correctly in contexts which demonstrate our cultural and social allegiances. If your game is cricket you understand what a ‘tickle through silly mid-off’ is all about. In principle anybody could come to understand this but only the those inside the form will do so. Wittgenstein’s own examples of forms of life include asking, thanking, cursing, greeting and playing.

This said, there are some difficulties with language games. One is the ‘meaning as use’ explanation of the meaning of a word. I shall use two quotes from Wittgenstein both of which appear in a paper by Michael Durrant.

There are some difficulties with this position. Looking at Quote 1 first and using the two sentences below.

1 Bring me a slab.
2 Bring me a pillar.

Case 1
Sentence 1 could give us a particular meaning for ‘slab’ according to context as follows. In the socio-linguistic context of the builder’s yard, we would understand it to mean a stone slab. However, for sentence 1 on a Sunday afternoon at home, long after lunch, and in the presence of sweetmeats, a slab of toffee would be understood.

Case 2
On the other hand, in sentences 1 and 2 there is nothing about the sentences which would give us the difference in meaning between a ‘pillar’ and ‘slab’ if both were uttered in the builder’s yard. There has to be some previously learned meaning.

So to say that a word has meaning only as it is used in the proposition is not true in Case 2. If we are able to distinguish the word ‘slab’ from ‘pillar’ in the sentences then we do it without any help from the other words. We do it from previous experience. We have learned what ‘slab’ and ‘pillar’ usually stand for. Therefore, if ‘use’ means ‘only in the immediate context of the words of the sentence’, i.e., ‘proposition’ then this ‘use’ is no help at all in determining the meaning of a word.

Michael Durrant has argued this case in a paper entitled, On the thesis that a name has meaning only in the context of a proposition: a problem. His claim seems to be based only on Quote 2. It is that this thesis is paradoxical and that it leads to an infinite regress. His argument is that: (i), if a name is the logical subject of a proposition and, (ii), if this name stands for an object only in the context of a proposition, then (iii), we can never independently specify what the sentence is about.

The force of this objection is that if the thing the sentence is about (the subject) is defined by its use in the sentence then we first need another sentence to describe what this name means or else we can never discover the meaning of the name. The immediate context of the proposition gives no clue as to what ‘slab’ means. If one cannot determine what ‘slab’ refers to from the other words of the sentences then a new sentence defining ‘slab’ is necessary. But if this argument is good for one sentence then it will be good for the new sentence and hence the regress.

This is an interesting argument but I do not find it convincing because it is at odds with what we actually do when faced with a proposition as noted in Case 2 above.

Durrant bases his claim on a strong interpretation of Quote 2, ‘Only in the context of a proposition has a name meaning.’ If this is taken to mean ‘only within the context of the words of a sentence’, then this argument works. However, Wittgenstein’s later statement contained in Quote 1 is not about ‘names’ in ‘propositions’ but ‘words’ as used in a ‘language’. The character of language on this formulation is that of a game where we follow the rules. We bring our previous experience in forms of life to bear on any sentence we hear or read. We do in fact learn what words usually stand for. We draw on this previous knowledge to understand new sentences in the form of life. We rely on the conventions of the form of life to understand what is being said.

In a paper replying to Durrant, Robin Attfield makes this very point with which I agree.

...we assume (except where the context indicates otherwise, as it does where several people are called "Bruce") that the same name is present whenever the same potentially referential sound or shape occurs, until this assumption is discovered to be false

In other words, we believe that a spoken or written word has a particular reference until events prove otherwise. We are able to tell ‘slab’ from ‘pillar’ in a builder’s yard.

Attfield further proposes that there are cases where things can be named outside a proposition. He calls these ‘acts of non-propositional naming’. He uses a picture of a football referee showing a warning card to a player as his example. This example does give rise to an interesting sidelight on human language and communication. There is a non-linguistic mode of communication called body language.

Attfield claims that when the referee shows the card it is a ‘non-propositional act of naming’ and that this is clear evidence of naming outside a proposition. It is certainly non-verbal. I would maintain however, that the referee’s action carried a clear proposition. For me it carried the proposition (meaning), ‘Once more and you’re off.’

In this case, as well as the socio-linguistic context of the game there is the dimension of body language. Thus the picture could just as well be said to show ‘a non-verbal act of naming’, and that it signified the proposition, ‘Once more and you’re off.’ The first time one sees such an action by the referee one learns ostensively what it means. Thereafter the action is, I would suggest, non-verbal and propositional.

On a walking tour recently the group received some instructions; ‘Turn left at the village green.’ None of us did because we all knew that the leader meant, ‘Turn right!’

Such abilities are a long way from denotation and picture theory but not so far from language games. Perhaps, therefore, the keynote question of the opening paragraph was the wrong question. The question, ‘How do words bear meaning?’ has led to a concentration on denotation and words as pictures of reality. Difficulties with this approach have been noted. But where does one turn to? One way to avoid the trap of assuming that words mean things is to look instead at the way things are in the world; and to look particularly at the way humans communicate and understand meanings.

Perhaps, therefore, a more fruitful approach would be to ask the question,‘How do humans communicate meaning using the sounds and symbols of language?’ This places the search more firmly in the orbit of the common human condition– the way we operate with language in the world. In my next essay I shall, therefore, turn to notions of human cognitive abilities, intentionality and speech acts to cast some more light on to the way words bear meaning.


WITTGENSTEIN L (1921) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Trans Pears, D.F. and McGuinness, B.F ) Oxford, Basil Blackwell
WITTGENSTEIN L (1953) Philosophical Investigations (Trans ANSCOMBE G E M) Oxford, Blackwell
GRAYLING A C (1982) An Introduction to Philosophical logic, Oxford, Blackwell
DURRANT M (1993) On the thesis that a name has sense only in the context of a proposition, Cogito, 7, 1, pp 47-50
ATTFIELD R (1995) The meaning of Names and their Propositional Contexts, Cogito, 9,2 pp153-158
HONDERICH, T (ed.) (1995) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford and New York, OUP