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

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Language and thought: Introducing representation

2.4 The meaning of expressions versus the meaning of individual utterances

I drew a contrast at the beginning of the chapter between those approaches to the meaning of utterances that look to the meaning of the words used, and those approaches that look instead to the content of the mental or psychological states of speakers. Grice belongs to the second camp. He aims to show that the meaning of an expression (e.g. a word or a sentence) is derivative, definable in terms of how that expression is typically used in meaningful utterances. The meaning of individual utterances is, he concludes, more fundamental than the meaning of expressions. More fundamental than both, though, are the contents of the speakers' minds, and in particular the intentions that give rise to the production of utterances.

With this agenda in mind, Grice draws a distinction within the category of non-natural meaning. What an utterance means ‘timelessly’ is tied to the meaning of the words and sentences used in making it. The word ‘timeless’ is used to allude to the fact that expressions can be used over and over again with the same meaning, but we can follow standard practice and talk of expression meaning – the meaning of the sentences and words that occur in utterances. But more fundamental than expression meaning, in Grice's view, is another kind of non-natural meaning: the meaning of an individual utterance (or, as he sometimes puts it, of an expression as it is used ‘on a specific occasion’). This more fundamental notion can be defined (Grice thinks) in terms of the psychological states of the speaker. Grice's working hypothesis, then, is that both kinds of meaning ultimately have their source in the content of psychological states, something he seeks to show in two steps:

Step One: give a definition of the meaning of single, isolated utterances couched entirely in terms of what the speaker intends to bring about.

Step Two: give a definition of expression meaning (‘timeless meaning’) couched entirely in terms of the definition of the meaning of single isolated utterances given in Step One.

Activity 3

Read Part II of Grice's paper. This is where he sets out the agenda just described. The crucial phrase is ‘this might reasonably be expected to help us with’. Grice is asserting the priority of the meaning of individual utterances (or of expressions as used by someone on ‘specific occasions’ as he puts it) over the meaning of expressions (used ‘timelessly’). He will go on to define the former in terms of the intentions of the utterer (what I have called his Step One) and the latter in terms of the former (Step Two).

Click to view Part II of ‘Meaning’ by H.P. Grice: ‘A strategy for elucidating non-natural meaning’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

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