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A meaning is a set of thoughts that people take symbols to have. Meanings can do many things, such as provoke a certain idea, or denote a certain real-world entity.

Meanings can be linguistic and non-linguistic. Linguistic meaning is any meaning that words and other items of language have. Non-linguistic meaning is whatever meaning can be conveyed without the use of language.

Meanings can be presented through various different mediums, or methods of communication. The kind of medium that is used determines whether or not a meaning is linguistic or non-linguistic. The newspaper, or the vocal cords, are mediums for "linguistic meaning". By contrast, body language is an example of a medium for the display of non-linguistic meanings, such as the "thumbs up" in Western cultures.

Meaning as a whole is studied in philosophy and semiotics, and especially in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and logic, and communication theory. Fields like sociolinguistics tend to be more interested in non-linguistic meanings. Linguistics lends itself to the study of linguistic meaning in the fields of semantics (which studies conventional meanings) and pragmatics (studies in how language is used by individuals). Literary theory, critical theory, and some branches of psychoanalysis are also involved in the discussion of meaning. However, this division of labor is not absolute, and each field depends to some extent upon the others.

Questions about how words and other symbols mean anything, and what it means to something is meaningful, are pivotal to an understanding of language and human experience.

To sum upMeaning can be:

Philosophical approaches

Philosophy is a linguistic activity. Many philosophers including Plato, Augustine, Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, John Searle, Jacques Derrida, W.V. Quine have concerned themselves with the problem of meaning.

Gottlob Frege

Modern philosophy of language began with the discussion of sense and reference in Gottlob Frege's essay Über Sinn und Bedeutung (now usually translated as On Sense and Reference). Frege noted that proper names present several problems with respect to meaning. Suppose, as one might casually say, the meaning of a name is the thing it refers to. Sam, then, means Sam. But what if the object referred to by the name does not exist? Is Pegasus, then, meaningless? Clearly not. There may also be two different names that refer to the same object: Hesperus and Phosphorus, for example, which were both once used to refer to the planet Venus. If the words mean the same, then substituting one for the other in a sentence will not result in a sentence that differs in meaning form the original. But in that case "Hesperus is Phosphorus" means the same as "Hesperus is Hesperus." This is clearly absurd, since you might learn something new by the former, but not by the latter.

Frege can be interpreted as arguing that it was therefore a mistake to think that the meaning of a name is the thing it refers to. Instead, the meaning must be something else—the "sense" of the word. Two names for the same person, then, can have different senses. Alternatively, the meaning of a name has two components: the sense and the reference. Each sense will pick out a unique referent, but one referent might be picked out by more than one sense. Frege argued that, ultimately, the same bifurcation of meaning must apply to most or all linguistic categories. Ironically enough, it is now accepted by many philosophers as applying to all expressions but proper names.

Saul Kripke

Saul Kripke examined the relation between sense and reference in dealing with possible and actual situations. He showed that one consequence of his interpretation of certain systems of modal logic was that the reference of a proper name is necessarily linked to its referent, but that the sense is not. So for instance "Hesperus" necessarily refers to Hesperus, even in those imaginary cases and worlds in which perhaps Hesperus is not the evening star. That is, Hesperus is necessarily Hesperus, but only contingently the morning star.

This results in the curious situation that part of the meaning of a name - that it refers to some particular thing - is a necessary fact about that name, but another part - that it is used in some particular way or situation - is not.

Kripke also drew the distinction between speaker's meaning and semantic meaning, elaborating on the work of ordinary language philosophers Paul Grice and Keith Donnellan. The speaker's meaning is what the speaker intends to refer to by saying something; the semantic meaning is what the words uttered by the speaker mean according to the language.

In some cases, people do not say what they mean; in other cases, they say something that is in error. In both these cases, the speaker's meaning and the semantic meaning seem to be different. Sometimes words do not actually express what the speaker wants them to express; so words will mean one thing, and what people intend to convey by them might mean another. The meaning of the expression, in such cases, is ambiguous.

Meaning as use

Throughout the 20th Century English philosophy focused closely on analysis of language. This style of analytic philosophy became very influential and led to the development of a wide range of philosophical tools.

J. L. Austin argued against fixating on the meaning of words. He showed that dictionary definitions are of limited philosophical use, since there is no simple "appendage" to a word that can be called its meaning. Instead, he showed how to focus on the way in which words are used in order to do things. He analysed the structure of utterances into three distinct parts: locutions, illocutions and perlocutions. His pupil John Searle developed the idea under the label "speech acts". Their work greatly influenced pragmatics.

At around the same time Ludwig Wittgenstein was re-thinking his approach to language. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he had supported the idea of an ideal language built up from atomic statements using logical connectives. Reflections on the complexity of language led to a more expansive approach to meaning in his Philosophical Investigations. His approach is often summarised by the aphorism "the meaning of a word is its use in a language".

In the 1960s, David Lewis published another thesis of meaning as use, as he described meaning as a feature of a social convention (see also convention (philosophy) and conventions as regularities of a specific sort. Lewis' work was an application of game theory in philosophical matters. Conventions, he argued, are a species of coordination equilibria (see also Nash equilibrium).


W.V. Quine argued for the indeterminacy of translation; that is, that it is in principle not possible to be absolutely certain of the meaning that a speaker attaches to an utterance. All that can be done is to examine the utterance as a part of the overall behaviour of the individual, and to use these observations to interpret the meaning of any utterances. For Quine, as for Wittgenstein and Austin, meaning is not something that is associated with a word or sentence, but is one aspect of the overall behaviour and culture of the speaker.

Quine's intellectual disciple, Donald Davidson, sought to find the meaning of an utterance in its truth-conditions. He proposed translating the sentences of a natural language such as English into first-order predicate calculus, and using the Truth-conditional semantics thus obtained as the definitive meaning of the utterance.

Linguistic approaches

Linguistic strings can be made up of phenomena like words, phrases, and sentences, and each seems to have a different kind of meaning. Individual words all by themselves, such as the word "bachelor," have one kind of meaning, because they only seem to refer to some abstract concept. Phrases, such as "the brightest star in the sky", seem to be different from individual words, because they are complex symbols arranged into some order. There is also the meaning of whole sentences, such as "Barry is a bachelor", which is both a complex whole, and seems to express a statement that might be true or false.

In linguistics the fields most closely associated with meaning are semantics and pragmatics. Semantics deals most directly with what words or phrases mean, and pragmatics deals with how the environment changes the meanings of words. Syntax and morphology also have a profound effect on meaning. The syntax of a language allows a good deal of information to be conveyed even when the specific words used are not known to the listener, and a language's morphology can allow a listener to uncover the meaning of a word by examining the morphemes that make it up.


The field of semantics examines the ways in which words, phrases, and sentences can have meaning. Semantics usually divides words into their sense and reference. The reference of a word is the thing it refers to: in the sentence "Give the guy sitting next to you a turn", the guy refers to a specific person, in this case the male one sitting next to you. This person is the phrase's reference. The sense, on the other hand, is that part of the expression that helps us to determine the thing it refers to. In the example above, the sense is every piece of information that helps to determine that the expression is referring to the male human sitting next to you and not any other object. This includes any linguistic information as well as situational context, environmental details, and so on. This, however, only works for nouns and noun phrases.

There are at least four different kinds of sentences. Some of them are truth-sensitive, which are called indicative sentences. However, other kinds of sentences are not truth-sensitive. They include expressive sentences, like "Ouch!"; performative sentences, such as "I damn thee!"; and commandative sentences, such as "Get the milk from the fridge". This aspect of meaning is called the grammatical mood.

Among words and phrases, different parts of speech can be distinguished, such as noun phrases and adjectival phrases. Each of these have different kinds of meaning; nouns typically refer to entities, while adjectives typically refer to properties. Proper names, which are names that stand for individuals, like "Jerry", "Barry", "Paris," and "Venus," are going to have another kind of meaning.

When dealing with verb phrases, one approach to discovering the way the phrase means is by looking at the thematic roles the child noun phrases take on. Verbs do not point to things, but rather to the relationship between one or more nouns and some configuration or reconfiguration therein, so the meaning of a verb phrase can be derived from the meaning of its child noun phrases and the relationship between them and the verb.


Ferdinand de Saussure described language in terms of signs, which he in turn divided into signifieds and signifiers. The signifier is the sound of the linguistic object (like Socrates, Saussure didn't much concern himself with the written word). The signified, on the other hand, is the mental construction or image associated with the sound. The sign, then, is essentially the relationship between the two.

Signs themselves exist only in opposition to other signs, which means that bat has meaning only because it is not cat or ball or boy. This is because signs are essentially arbitrary, as any foreign language student is well aware: there is no reason that bat couldn't mean "that bust of Napoleon over there" or "this body of water". Since the choice of signifiers is ultimately arbitrary, the meaning cannot somehow be in the signifier. Saussure instead defers meaning to the sign itself: meaning is ultimately the same thing as the sign, and meaning means that relationship between signified and signifier. This, in turn, means that all meaning is both within us and communal. Signs mean by reference to our internal lexicon and grammar, and despite their being a matter of convention, that is, a public thing, signs can only mean to the individual - what red means to one person may not be what red means to another. However, while meanings may vary to some extent from individual to individual, only those meanings which stay within a boundary are seen by other speakers of the language to refer to reality: if one were to refer to smells as red, most other speakers would assume the person is talking nonsense (although statements like this are common among synaesthetics).


Pragmatics studies the ways that context affects meaning. The two primary forms of context important to pragmatics are linguistic context and situational context.

Linguistic context refers to the language surrounding the phrase in question. The importance of linguistic context becomes exceptionally clear when looking at pronouns: in most situations, the pronoun him in the sentence "Joe also saw him" has a radically different meaning if preceded by "Jerry said he saw a guy riding an elephant" than it does if preceded by "Jerry saw the bank robber" or "Jerry saw your dog run that way".

Situational context, on the other hand, refers to every non-linguistic factor that affects the meaning of a phrase. Nearly anything can be included in the list, from the time of day to the people involved to the location of the speaker or the temperature of the room. An example of situational context at work is evident in the phrase "it's cold in here", which can either be a simple statement of fact or a request to turn up the heat, depending on, among other things, whether or not it is believed to be in the listener's power to affect the temperature.

When we speak we perform speech acts. A speech act has an illocutionary point or illocutionary force. For example, the point of an assertion is to represent the world as being a certain way. The point of a promise is to put oneself under an obligation to do something. The illucutionary point of a speech act must be distinguished from its perlocutionary effect, which is what it brings about. A request, for example, has as its illocutionary point to direct someone to do something. Its perlocutionary effect may be the doing of the thing by the person directed. Sentences in different grammatical moods, the declarative, imperative, and interrogative, tend to perform speech acts of specific sorts. But in particular contexts one may perform a different speech act using them than that for which they are typically put to use. Thus, as noted above, one may use a sentence such as "it's cold in here" not only to make an assertion but also to request that one's auditor turn up the heat. Speech acts include performative utterances, in which one performs the speech act by using a first person present tense sentence which says that one is performing the speech act. Examples are: 'I promise to be there', 'I warn you not to do it', 'I advise you to turn yourself in', etc. Some specialized devices for performing speech acts are exclamatives and phatics, such as 'Ouch!' and 'Hello!', respectively. The former is used to perform an expressive speech act, and the latter for greeting someone.

Pragmatics, then, reveals that meaning is both something affected by and affecting the world. Meaning is something contextual with respect to language and the world, and is also something active toward other meanings and the world.

In applied pragmatics (such as neuro-linguistic programming), meaning is constituted by an individual through the active significance generated by the mental processing of stimuli input from the sensory organs. Thus, people can see, hear, feel/touch, taste and smell, and form meanings out of those sensory experiences, actively and interactively.

Even although a sensory input created by a stimulus cannot be articulated in language or signs of any kind, it can nevertheless have a meaning. This can be experimentally demonstrated by showing that people behaviourally respond in specific, non-arbitrary ways to sensing a stimulus, consciously or sub-consciously, even although they have no way of telling what it is or means, and no possible way of knowing what it is or what it means.

See also




Important theorists

Further reading

  • Akmajian, Adrian, Richard Demers, Ann Farmer, and Robert Harnish. Linguistics: an introduction to language and communication, 4th edition. 1995. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Austin, J. L. How to Do Things With Words. 1962. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Davidson, Donald. Inquiries into Truth and Meaning, 2nd edition. 2001. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Dummett, Michael. Frege: Philosophy of Language, 2nd Edition. 1981. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Frege, Gottlob. The Frege Reader. Edited by Michael Beaney. 1997. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Grice, Paul. Studies in the Way of Words. 1989. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Searle, John and Daniel Vanderveken. Foundations of Illocutionary Logic. 1985. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Searle, John. Speech Acts. 1969. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Searle, John. Expression and Meaning. 1979. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stonier, Tom: Information and Meaning. An Evolutionary Perspective. 1997. XIII, 255 p. 23,5 cm.

External links

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