Language and thought: Introducing representation
Language and thought: Introducing representation

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Language and thought: Introducing representation

2.10 Section summary

After setting aside ‘natural’ meaning as largely irrelevant to language (section 2.3), Grice attempts to define the (non-natural) meaning of utterances in terms of the content of the speakers’ psychological states, and in particular in terms of their intentions in performing those utterances. He reaches a final definition, which we called Grice 3, after two false starts (section 2.6). The meaning of expressions, or of sentences at least, is derivative, defined by him in terms of the meaning of typical utterances.

Several problems confront Grice's proposal, including the phenomenon of apparently meaningful but audience-less speech, and the massive complexity of the intentions Grice attributes to ordinary speakers (section 2.9). Another common objection is that he seems to be committing the same errors as Humpty Dumpty (section 2.9, ‘The Humpty objection’). Replies to each of these objections are available, though whether these replies are ultimately successful was not resolved here.

Perhaps the most complex issue in Grice's discussion in ‘Meaning’ concerns the place in it of the meaning of expressions. One source of difficulty is that he provides no theory of the meaning of words or novel sentences (section 2.7). And Searle thinks that he pays insufficient notice to the contribution of community-wide linguistic conventions to the meaning of expressions and hence of utterances (section 2.9, ‘Searle's objection’).

One thing we have learnt in the course of this section is that the key debate is not as simple as was implied in the introduction to this section. The core debate over the source of the meaning of utterances is not between those who look to the mental states of the speaker and those look to the meaning of the expressions used. It turns out that everyone, even those who look to the mental states of the speaker, must provide a theory of the meaning of expressions. Moreover, Searle and others claim that the community-wide meaning of the expressions used is a key factor in what an utterance means, but they often wish to claim that the meaning of expressions itself reduces to the content of mental states – not the mental states of the individual speaker but the mental states of members of the linguistic community. The real debate is between those who think that all species of linguistic meaning – the meaning of utterances and the meaning of words and sentences – reduce to the content of the mental states of those who use the language, and those who deny this. Searle and Grice are on the same side on this matter, even if they disagree over strategy.

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