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

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Language and thought: Introducing representation

2.7 Expression meaning as defined by Grice

Recall Step Two in the Gricean agenda: to define the meaning of expressions in terms of the meaning of individual utterances. Carrying out this strategy successfully would lend strong support to the thought that it is the mental states of speakers, rather than the meaning of expressions, that are the ultimate source of utterances’ meaning.

Activity 7

Read the rest of Grice's paper (Part VI). Pay particular attention to (1)–(3) on pp. 185–6, which state his overall theory. (1) and (2) are a summary of his theory of the meaning of individual utterances. (Be warned: Grice is not kind to his readers here. For example, his theory of the meaning of utterances is given twice over. He gives a definition of what it is for a speaker (‘A’) to mean something by producing an utterance. He then gives a definition of what it is for an expression (‘x’), as it is used by a speaker to produce an utterance ‘on a specific occasion’, to mean something. But according to him these notions are equivalent. That is why, in an effort to simplify his position, I represented him as offering a theory of the meaning of just one thing, the utterance itself, U.) (3) is his theory of the meaning an expression (‘x’) has ‘timelessly’, i.e. independently of the meaning it has in the context of any particular utterance. (This is what I have been calling ‘the meaning of an expression’.)

Before coming to (1)–(3), Grice extends his account to cover utterances that are not intended to convey information, for example questions or orders; after (1)–(3) he attempts to deal with some potential problems with his overall account.

What is expression meaning, according to Grice (i.e. how does he define the meaning an expression, x, has ‘timelessly’)?

Click to view Part VI of ‘Meaning’ by H.P. Grice: ‘Timeless meaning defined in terms of meaning on an occasion’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


The meaning of an expression is defined by Grice in a way that takes for granted the meaning of individual utterances made using it, since this notion is already given in his (1 )–(2). He claims (though he is not very clear at this point) that an expression – a sentence, in effect – means that p within a loosely circumscribed linguistic community if, and only if, members of that community tend to use that expression in utterances that mean that p. So, for example, the expression ‘the train is late again’ means what it does among the people of Britain, America and so on, because they tend to use it in individual utterances that mean the train is late again.

The theory of the meaning of expressions in (3) on page 186 comes to this:

Sentence s means that p in the language of a specific population if and only if most utterances of s by members of that population mean that p.

Unfortunately, there seems to be an important lacuna in Grice's account of expression meaning: at best it defines sentence meaning, since it says nothing about word meaning. Words are typically uttered meaningfully only in combination with other words, typically within sentences. (There are a few exceptions, such as ‘Fire!’ or ‘Help!’) But they can appear in many different sentences, associated with a huge variety of distinct communicative intentions. So even if Grice is right to claim that a sentence means what it does because of a regularity in the meaning of the utterances made using it, the meaning of a word cannot be defined in terms of such a regularity.

But there is a problem with this definition even as it applies to just sentences. Some sentences have never been uttered before. Consider:

It is easier to dry-clean umbrellas that have been soaked in giraffe saliva than it is to inhale freshly plucked Namibian goose down.

If Grice is right that a sentence's meaning is a matter of how it is regularly used, then this novel sentence, never used (I presume) before I wrote it down just now, ought to be meaningless. But that seems not to be the case. Its meaning is unusual, but it has one.

This second problem seems to have its source in the first. If we had a theory of word meaning, we could attempt to see how the meaning of a novel sentence is built up from the meaning of the words it contains. Grice's predicament is not quite as desperate as it appears. We will see a theory of word meaning that is in keeping with Grice's ambitions towards the end of this section.


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