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

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Language and thought: Introducing representation

2.5 Why intentions?

Most of the rest of Grice's paper is dedicated to spelling out a way of identifying the meaning of an individual utterance ‘on an occasion’ with the content of the utterer's intentions (Step One). The hard task he faces is to say what type of intention creates meaning. If someone shouts ‘I saw a film last night’ extremely loudly at their brother with the intention of making this brother fall off his bike, this ‘utterance’ (if that is the right word) does not thereby mean fall off your bike, brother. So Grice must distinguish between different kinds of intentions. To appreciate his efforts it will help to understand what is driving Grice's choice of the utterer's intention, rather than some other type of psychological state, as the source of an utterance's meaning. The motivation for this choice is important but is left largely implicit in this early groundbreaking paper.

Many of the examples Grice gives of events with (non-natural) meaning are non-linguistic. Ringing the bell on a bus is a case in point. The existence of non-linguistic but meaningful acts leads Grice to the view that it is as acts that linguistic acts have meaning – their being linguistic is something of a side issue. Grice even goes so far as to stretch ordinary usage of the term ‘utterance’ to include any event that has (non-natural) meaning. But what is it about meaningful acts, linguistic or otherwise, that gives them the meaning they have? One thing all acts seem to have in common is that they are performed with an intention, even if that intention is not always fulfilled. Grice's hunch is that it is the intention behind the production of a meaningful act, linguistic or non-linguistic, that gives it its meaning.

He attempts to vindicate this hunch by spelling out in detail the precise form the intention must take. Merely being intended does not make an act meaningful since all acts are intended but not all acts are meaningful. When a tree surgeon saws off a branch, this does not normally have any meaning. There must be something special about the intention behind utterances (i.e. meaningful acts) that sets them apart from acts that lack meaning. But what is that special something?

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