Meaning and communication

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U024-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

The two fundamental facts about language are that we use it to mean things and we use it to communicate. So the philosophy of language tries to explain what it is for words and sentences to mean things and also what it is for us to communicate by using them. Although it cannot be accidental that meaning and communication go together, it is quite easy to see them as fundamentally distinct. Thus on some accounts the meaning of sentences is conceived in terms of a ‘representative’ power whereby they stand for either aspects of the world or ideas in the mind and their use in communication is derived from this property: language serves as a vehicle for meaning, itself thought of in independent terms. An alternative approach seeks to link the two more closely, seeing representation as itself only possible through the use of terms of a common language, used in communication.

At its most primitive, communication may be simply akin to infection, as when one animal communicates fear or hostility to another. Simple signalling is also described as communication, as when bees communicate the direction and quantity of pollen to other bees, or when birds communicate territorial or sexual claims. Here the signaller issues a sign and the recipient modifies its behaviour upon perceiving it; the content of the signal is interpreted (by us) to be whatever goal seems to be served by issuing it: maximizing the success of the hive in obtaining honey, or keeping other birds out of a particular space, for example. Humans communicate in a similar sense, through the use of emotional and other signals, unconscious ‘body language’ or equally unconscious or semiconscious signs, which may include fashion statements or indications of status, for example. When we communicate successfully we share an understanding. Everything is open between us; nothing is concealed nor taken by one person in one way and another in a different way. With linguistic communication this common understanding can be put in terms of meaning: we each know what the other means. This implies that we understand not only the semantics of the utterance, but also the pragmatics: if the utterance states that something is the case then we know what this is, but we also know if the statement was meant ironically, or condescendingly, or with some other intent (see Pragmatics). It is plausible to think that the basic goal of speech is to achieve such communication, although there will be cases where we speak in order to conceal our thoughts, or to mislead the hearer. People fluent in the same language achieve open communication more or less effortlessly, at least where straightforward messages are concerned. But philosophers of language have not found this phenomenon easy to understand. Issues arising include: the place of intention in communication (see Communication and intention); the place of linguistic convention in communication (see Language, conventionality of); the relationship between shared understanding and activities such as translation and interpretation (see Radical translation and radical interpretation); the pervasive possibility of indeterminacy; and the nature of rules and the extent to which language is essentially social – and indeed the extent to which language is necessary to communication (see Meaning and rule-following). In the analytic tradition, major writings on this subject include works by Wittgenstein, Grice, Lewis, Bennett, Kripke, Searle and Tuomela, while a more continental interest in the field is especially illustrated by Habermas (1984, 1987).

The classical tradition, including Aristotle, Hobbes and Locke, thinks of communication in terms of one party having an idea then using language as a medium for transmitting it to others. The meaning of the linguistic vehicle is then derived from the primitive representative powers of the idea. The analytic tradition has sought to bring our ability to represent things closer to our ability to express what we think linguistically, even to the point of reversing the dependency and making thought itself (or at least the kind of thought that could be expressed in language, unlike perhaps the thought of the graphic artist or the musician) dependent upon its linguistic expression. The question then becomes one of saying how language can generate ‘intentionality’, which is the power of being ‘about’ external and often absent situations which it represents truly or falsely (see Intentionality). If, for example, language is essentially a shared and social construction, and if it is necessary to thought, then we derive the result that a born Robinson Crusoe would not be capable of thought, at least until he acquired a social identity. The consequence seems uncomfortable, since it is easy to imagine such a Crusoe giving all sorts of signs of intelligent adaptation to his environment, and conceiving and executing complex plans. For some thinkers, such as John Searle (1983), this is because intentionality resides in our biological nature, in advance of and independent of language. For others, such as Jerry Fodor (1987), it is because we come equipped with an innate representative medium conceived on the model of a natural (social) language, but itself explaining the powers of natural languages: a ‘language of thought’ (see Language of thought).

Arguably too much of the theory of communication treats the process as one of interpretation or translation, in which the task of the hearer is to theorize about the thoughts intended by some act of communication of the speaker. This makes it seem as if each person is secure in their own ‘ideolect’, with it being relatively problematic whether the same ideolect is shared by others. This clearly distorts what it is to share a language, which surely entails finding ourselves (surprisingly literally) of one mind about meaning. We have a securely shared common understanding, in which I have no privileged access to my own meanings which is not communicable to others. Philosophers have therefore struggled against the vision of the infant, inducted into this shared language, as a kind of outsider or ‘little linguist’ busy theorizing (in what medium?) about the potential meanings of the utterances made by surrounding people. The proposed alternative derives from the Verstehen (literally ‘to understand’) tradition of humane sciences (see Dilthey, W.), seeing the task of the infant not so much as one of theorizing as one of imitating and simulating the expressions of others. I achieve the openness of full communication with you, on such an account, when I know what it would be to make your words my own.

Citing this article:
Blackburn, Simon. Meaning and communication, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U024-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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