This volume explores the nature of meaning and the way it functions in language. Philosophers such as Aristotle, Thomas Acquinas, John Locke, Immanuel Kant and David Hume had keen interest in the study of meaning, though it was not central to their philosophical inquiry. But the contemporary philosophy takes a radical twist towards language which is characterized as linguistic turn in philosophy. Meaning and its correct characterization are the foremost concerns of contemporary philosophy.
Study of two semantic perspectives meaning atomism and meaning holism - is the core content of this book and it mainly focuses on contrasting these two perspectives or models of meaning a d evaluates them with a view to arrive at an explicit conception of meaning that will correctly reveal the semantics of natural language.
In doing so, it vividly discusses the two perspectives of meaning along with the atomistic theory of Gottlob Frege, Wittgenstein's approach to meaning, logical positivists' conception of meaning, why meaning atomism fails to capture the uniqueness of meaning, Quinian theory of meaning holism, Davidson's approach to meaning holism, and Later Wittgenstein's view on meaning holism, thus covering a wide gamut of the topic.
Dr Satya Sundar Sethy is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai, India.
He has published several papers in international and national journals, contributed book chapters to the edited books. He is credited with an edited book Contemporary Ethical Issues in Engineering (2015), published by IGI Global, Pennsylvania, USA. His current research interests include Philosophy of Language, Analytic Philosophy, Professional Ethics (Engineering and Higher Education), Indian Philosophy, Logic (Nyaya and Aristotelean), and Information and Communication Technologies (lCTs) in Education.
The main objective of the inquiry undertaken in this study is to explore the nature of meaning and the way it functions in language. Investigation of meaning is not a recent concern in philosophy. Philosophers traditionally were interested in the question of meaning. This is evident from the work of philosophers such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Kant and Hume. But their interest in the study of meaning was not central to philosophical inquiry. However, contemporary philosophy takes a radical turn. It is a turn towards language which is commonly characterized as linguistic turn in philosophy. It is evident from a cursory look at the development of philosophy that language becomes an independent subject of study. We are thus no longer surprised when we are offered philosophical theories in the form of linguistic proposals. Geilbert Ryle goes to the extent of saying that "philosophical arguments have always, if not entirely, consisted in attempts to thrash out 'what it means to say so and so''. The concern for meaning and the correct characterization of the nature of meaning thus become the foremost concern of contemporary philosophy.
Philosophers' occupation with meaning is characterized by such general questions like: "what is meaning?", "how is meaning determined?", "how do expressions get their meaning?", etc. True, these are general questions but they cannot be answered in general terms. These questions cannot be answered independently of any perspective. They are semantic perspectives in the light of which meaning is characterized. This allows the possibility of alternative characterizations of meaning structure or semantic structure of natural language.
The two semantic perspectives that dominate the philosophers' discussion on meaning are: meaning atomism and meaning holism. As the name suggests, meaning atomism views meaning works atomistically. It is a view which suggests the meaning of a proposition is determined in isolation from other propositions. The reason behind claiming so is to support the correspondence theory of truth. This says that the meaning of a proposition expresses a state of affairs and if the state of affairs is found in the phenomenal world then the proposition will be treated as true and if it is not found in the phenomenal world then the proposition will be treated as false. This view is supported by Frege, Early Wittgenstein, logical positivists, Russell and many others. The holistic perspective on meaning says that meaning of a proposition is not determined in isolation. It determines in relation to other propositions of a given language. In this case, meaning is not an isolated phenomenon. It is a corporate or a global phenomenon. Hence, on account of second view, meaning works in a holistic way. This suggests that to understand the meaning of a proposition we need to understand a set of proposition of that language.
The major focus of this study is to contrast these two perspectives or models on meaning and to evaluate them with a view to arrive at a conception of meaning that will correctly reveal the semantics of natural language.
The first half of the thesis is devoted to the discussion of various theories of meaning developed in the atomistic perspective on meaning. Then, it explains the problems in atomistic theory of meaning, i.e. how atomistic theory of meaning fails to capture the meaning in most of the cases of our language.
On the basis of this discussion attempts have been made to show that atomistic theory of meaning has failed to account for the many-sided nature of meaning? On the basis of the failure of atomistic theory of meaning we explore the alternative theory, i.e. meaning holism. Although meaning holism has diverse versions as global holism, content holism (psychological), moderate holism and molecular holism we give our arguments to support the view on moderate holism. To establish this we have considered the arguments of Quine, Davidson and Later Wittgenstein. All these philosophers though hold meaning holism differ in their respective standpoints while proposing their holistic conception of meaning. However, all of them agree on a common feature that the meaning of a proposition cannot be determined in isolation. Meaning can be decided in relation to a set of propositions in a particular paradigm of language.
In view of the stated objectives the inquiry to be undertaken in this study has the following structure conceived in terms of eight chapters. A brief description of each chapter is given below.
Chapter 1 is about the two conceptions of meaning. First conception, i.e. "meaning atomism", states that meaning of a sentence is determined in isolation from other sentences. This conception of meaning states that each sentence has some specific sense and is about the state of affairs of the world. The sentence will be meaningful if the state of affairs is found in the phenomenal world. So there is a tight-knit association between meaning of a proposition and its referred state of affairs. This explains that every proposition is either true or false. The proposition will be treated as true if the state of affairs maps the empirical world and it will be treated as false if the state of affairs does not map the empirical world. Hence, truth-value of a proposition is determined by its referred state of affairs. The important idea of this conception of meaning is that the truth-value of a proposition determines the meaning of a proposition. Logically speaking, if a proposition does not have truth-value it will be regarded as a meaningless proposition.
Second conception, i.e. "meaning holism", elucidates the nature of meaning as a form of holism. It disagrees with the fact that meaning of a proposition is determined in isolation from other sentences. The reason is, meaning is not an isolated phenomenon. It is an interconnected phenomenon. The meaning of a proposition is interconnected with other propositions. The meaning of a proposition is thus determined by a body of interconnecting propositions. Hence, meaning works holistically. The important issue involved in this conception of meaning is that between meaning and truth it is the determination of the meaning of a proposition and not the truth-value of a proposition that is emphasized.
Chapter 2 presents the atomistic theory of meaning in the light of Frege. Frege in his philosophical works repeatedly mentioned that meaning of a proposition is determined by the conditions of its applicability. In his paper "On Sense and Reference" he clearly points out that every proposition has a sense and it is of logical sort. Again, that sense is about the state of affairs of the world/facts of the world/objects of the world. A proposition will be treated as true if sense of that proposition agrees with the facts of the world. On the contrary, a proposition will be treated as false if sense of that proposition does not agree with the facts of the world. For him, sense of a proposition is same as thought of a proposition. Hence, every thought states something about the state of affairs of the world. On this account, he claims that meaning works atomistically. Further, he states that meaning of a proposition is determined in relation to its truth-value. So, the individual sentence plays a role for determining the meaning of a proposition. Hence, the individual sentence is self-sufficient for determining its meaning. Thus, his approach to meaning is considered as an atomistic one.
Early Wittgenstein's approach to meaning is dealt in Chapter 3. This chapter discusses how his approach to meaning supports the atomistic theory of meaning. His claim on atomistic theory of meaning is based on two views - picture theory of meaning and elementary proposition. In his view, every sentence depicts a picture. The picture is about the state of affairs of the world. The sentence will be judged as true if the picture maps the state of affairs of the world and it turns out to be false if the picture does not map the state of affairs of the world. Hence, truth-value of a sentence is determined by its picture, i.e. what the sentence states about. "Picture" of a sentence may be considered same as "sense" of a sentence or "essence" of a sentence.
According to him, all sentences can be reduced to atomic sentences which are also called elementary sentences. Atomic sentences are those which state the facts of the world. With the help of correspondence theory it is decided whether a sentence is true or false. Thus, truth or falsity of a sentence is decided on the availability of its corresponding state of affairs.
He states that the picture of a proposition is a logical one. By this he means the possible description of reality. The reality of a proposition is explained through two ways:
1. By explaining its sense.
2. By determining its truth conditions.
Sense reflects the picture in a proposition. A proposition will be true if the sense of that proposition agrees with reality and it will be false if it does not agree with the reality. Thus, "a proposition is a picture of reality" (Tractatus 4.12). This will enable us to bring out the truth condition of a proposition. He further states that every proposition can be judged as either true or false because all propositions endowed with "thought" and that are about the state of affairs of the world. Thus, he confirms that we cannot imagine a sentence without its truth condition. Hence, it is assumed that he is an atomist.
In the discussion of meaning, logical positivists make their significant contribution. They reject metaphysical statements as meaningless on the ground that they are not verifiable. Through their semantic critique of metaphysics they developed their own theory of meaning which says that meaning is a matter of empirical verification. Verifiability becomes a condition for a sentence to be meaningful. Hence, proposed as a criterion for meaningfulness. Subsequently, this criterion has been revised by logical positivists in a number of ways with a view to make their conception of meaning acceptable. Chapter 4 gives a detailed exposition of logical positivists' conception of meaning.
The main aim behind proposing verifiability theory of meaning is to reject metaphysical statement, on the one hand, and on the other hand, to establish a truth theory for determining the meaning of all statements.
Positivists claim that a proposition is factually significant when a person knows how to verify a proposition. To verify a proposition means to know the various observations under which the proposition will be true or false. In this respect, Waismann states that "a person who utters a proposition must know under what conditions the proposition is to be judged as true or false; if he is not able to specify that, he does not know what he has said" (Hanfling 1981a: 27). Further, logical positivists state that to understand a proposition means to know how things stand, i.e. what the proposition is stating about. Hence, a sentence is self-evident and self-sufficient for determining its meaning. In this regard, their view is considered as atomistic.
Why meaning atomism fails to capture the uniqueness of meaning is explained in Chapter 5. The question may be raised here is: What are the problems lie in atomistic theory of meaning for being qualified to be called a comprehensive theory of meaning? This chapter gives a few crucial arguments against atomistic theory of meaning. These arguments are: How picture theory of meaning is a valid theory? Do we verify all other propositions of a language when we understand a proposition? How to determine the sense of a proposition? Is it possible to refer to the actual state of affairs if we do not know the other states of affairs?
All these arguments together weaken the atomistic theory of meaning to justify its own standpoint. All these difficulties lead to the shifting of the alternative way for determining the meaning of a proposition, i.e. holistic conception of meaning. To determine the meaning of a proposition we require a body of propositions which is connected to the original proposition either directly or inferentially. Meaning in this way becomes a matter of interconnection between relevant propositions.
Chapter 6 discusses the theory of "meaning holism" in the light of Quine. Quine has borrowed the expression "meaning holism" from the physicist Duhem. Quine following Duhem arrives at an epistemological nature of meaning which says:
The falsity of the observation categorical does not conclusively refute the hypothesis. What it refutes is the conjunction of sentences that was needed to imply the observation categorical. In order to retract that conjunction we do not have to retract the hypothesis in question; we could retract some other sentences of the conjunction instead.
This passage says that a hypothesis necessarily consists of a bunch of sentences. If the hypothesis goes wrong then one of the sentences of the bunch has to be modified or is to be replaced but this will not result into the replacement of the theory as a whole.
In a revised form Quine interprets the same concept in his own way: "No statement, taken in isolation from its fellows, admits confirmation at all. Our statements face the tribunal of sense experience only as a corporate body. Hence, it is not significant in general to speak of the confirmation of a single statement."
To refute atomistic theory of meaning Quine has conceived of a strategy which consists of the following arguments. First, he rejects the distinction between analytic and synthetic statement claimed by logical positivists. Second, he brings out the fallacies of verificationists' theory of meaning. And, third, he formulates the indeterminacy of translation thesis to show the indeterminate nature of meaning. All these arguments have been discussed elaborately with a view to establish Quine's theory of meaning holism.
Chapter 7 is devoted to Davidson's approach to meaning holism. Here we have discussed how Davidson took the help from Tarski's T-Schema for establishing his own theory of meaning. Davidson's theory of meaning which he calls the theory of interpretation is based on three fundamental notions. These are, radical interpretation, belief system and the principle of charity. All these three notions together establish Davidson's theory of meaning holism. A detailed analysis of these three notions is given in this chapter.
On Davidson's account, a proposition cannot be self-sufficient for determining its meaning. The reason that he has given is that a proposition functions in a system of language. A language exhibits a network of propositions and beliefs being interconnected with each other. Thus, the determination of meaning of a proposition is not an isolated phenomenon. Rather it is a collaborative phenomenon. Hence, determination of meaning of a proposition needs other propositions situated in the same network. This is the way how meaning, as Davidson claims, works holistically.
Davidson, while explaining the radical interpretation, says that to interpret is to understand the fact that the speaker is expressing through his utterance. And to understand a fact implies understanding of some other related facts. In this sense, understanding assumes a network exhibiting the connection between propositions and beliefs. Hence, for him, holism is an authentic and genuine approach to meaning.
Later Wittgenstein's view on meaning holism is discussed in Chapter 8. The discussion highlights a few issues. First how use theory of meaning helps in determining the meaning of a proposition. Second, the role of language-game in determining the meaning of a proposition. And, third, the idea of family- resemblance for establishing the non-essentialistic conception of meaning. These are related issues which point out to Wittgenstein's inclination towards approaching meaning in holistic term.
The study concludes by arguing that meaning works holistically. The holistic approach to meaning as defined here is a moderate one. The idea of holism is defended here is neither global nor molecular. To say this is to accept the argument that for understanding a proposition we require a system of propositions within a particular paradigm of a language. This implies that we do not bring the whole language to understand a proposition. It is absurd to argue that to determine the meaning of a proposition we need to know the meanings of all possible propositions of that language. This view is supported by Michael Dummett. Dummett's arguments against global holism are discussed in this book with a view to arrive at a conclusion that a moderate holism may be viewed as the only acceptable form of meaning holism that can account for the semantics of natural language.
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