Language, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U017-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 19, 2019, from

2. Meaning: language, mind and world

Philosophy aims at intellectually responsible accounts of the most basic and general aspects of reality. Part of what it is to provide an intellectually responsible account, clearly, is for us to make sense of our own place in reality – as, among other things, beings who conceive and formulate descriptions and explanations of it.

In framing issues about our roles as describers and explainers, philosophers commonly draw a triangle in which lines connect ‘Language’, ‘Mind’ and ‘World’. The three lines represent relations that are keys to understanding our place in reality. These relations in one or another way constitute the meaningfulness of language.

MindWorld. Between Mind and World there are a number of crucial relations studied by philosophers of mind. Among these are perception, action, the mind’s bodily constitution and intentionality (the mind’s ability to think about what is in the world) (see Mind, philosophy of).

MindLanguage. Using and understanding language is a heavily mental activity. Further, this activity seems to be what the real existence of meaningful language consists in. In short, mind invests meaning in language.

Theorists of language focus on the Mind/Language connection when they consider understanding to be the cornerstone concept, holding, for instance, that an account of meaning for a given language is simply an account of what constitutes the ability to understand it (see Meaning and understanding). Philosophy has seen a variety of accounts of wherein understanding consists. Many have been attracted to the view that understanding is a matter of associating the correct ideas or concepts with words (see, for instance, Locke, J.; Frege, G.; Language of thought). Others have equated understanding with knowing the requirements for accurate or apt use of words and sentences (see, for instance, Davidson, D.; Dummett, M.A.E.). Still others find the key to understanding in one’s ability to discern the communicative goals of speakers and writers (see, for instance, Grice, H.P.), or more directly in one’s ability to ‘pass’ linguistically, without censure (see, for instance, Wittgenstein, L.). Certainly, these approaches do not exclude one another.

Some philosophers focus more on production than consumption – on the speaker’s side of things – analysing linguistic meaning in terms of the goals and practices of speakers, and in terms of relations among communities of speakers (see Grice, H.P.; Communication and intention; Language, conventionality of; Language, social nature of).

Many of the philosophers who see understanding and use as the keys to linguistic meaning have held that the meaningfulness of language in some sense derives from mental content, perhaps including the contents of beliefs, thoughts and concepts. This enhances the interest of cognitive semantics, which is a thriving field of study (see Semantics; Semantics, conceptual role; Semantics, informational; Semantics, teleological; Concepts).

It has not gone unquestioned that mind indeed can assign meaning to language, and in fact scepticism about this has figured quite prominently in philosophical discussions of language. Wittgenstein has been read as at least flirting with scepticism that there is anything our minds can do that would constitute meaning one thing rather than another (see Wittgenstein, L. §§10–12; Meaning and rule-following; Private states and language). W.V. Quine, starting from the thought that meaning is whatever good translation captures, and on arguments that good translation is not squarely dictated by any real facts, concludes that meaning is highly indeterminate. Quine is not alone in the view that linguistic and mental meaning are best seen not as ‘out there’ to be discovered, but rather as partly constituted or constructed by our practices of interpreting and translating (see Quine, W.V.; Davidson, D.; Dennett, D.C.; Lewis, D.K.; Radical translation and radical interpretation).

LanguageMind. If mind assigns meaning to language, so also language enables and channels mind. Acquiring and trafficking in a language brings one concepts, thoughts and habits of thought, with all sorts of consequences (see Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis; Linguistic discrimination; Language and gender). Indeed, having language is so crucial to our ability to frame the sophisticated thoughts that appear essential to language-use and understanding, that many doubt whether mind is ‘prior’ to language in any interesting sense (see Meaning and communication; Davidson, D.).

LanguageWorld. Since language is the vehicle of our descriptions and explanations of reality, philosophers are concerned about what if anything makes for a true or apt characterization of reality. Philosophers have these concerns for reasons of philosophical methodology (which we will come to in a moment), but also owing to the naturalness and plausibility of a certain picture of meaning.

According to this picture, the key to meaning is the notion of a truth-condition. A statement’s meaning determines a condition that must be met if it is to be true. For example, my statement ‘Ireland is larger than Manhattan’, given what it means, is true just in case a certain state of affairs obtains (namely, a certain island’s being larger than a certain other island). According to the truth-conditional picture of meaning, the core of what a statement means is its truth-condition – which helps determine the way reality is said to be in it – and the core of what a word means is the contribution it makes to this (perhaps, in the case of certain sorts of word, this would be what the word refers to) (see Semantics; Meaning and truth; Reference).

While the truth-conditional picture of meaning has dominated semantics, a serious challenge has been presented by philosophers, including Michael Dummett, who urge that the key to meaning is a notion of correct use. According to this alternative picture, the core of a sentence’s meaning is the rule for its appropriate utterance. Of course, the two pictures converge if sentences are correctly used exactly when they are true. The interest of the distinction emerges only when (a ‘realist’ conception of) truth is dislodged from this role, whether because of scepticism about truth itself, or because truth is seen as too remote from the crucible of social practice to be the meaning-relevant criterion for correct use (see Realism and antirealism; Intuitionistic logic and antirealism; Meaning and verification; Dummett, M.A.E.; Truth, pragmatic theory of; Truth, deflationary theories of; Truth, coherence theory of; Truth, correspondence theory of). The challenge illustrates a sense in which the Mind/Language and Language/World connections can seem to place a tension on the notion of meaning (meaning is whatever we cognitively grasp, but the meaning of language just is its bearing on the world).

Citing this article:
Crimmins, Mark. Meaning: language, mind and world. Language, philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U017-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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