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THE PAST & FUTURE OF MEANING. Jaroslav Peregrin Academy of Sciences & Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic The past of meaning: res cogitans infiltrated into the world of res extensa.

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the past future of meaning


Jaroslav Peregrin

Academy of Sciences & Charles University,

Prague, Czech Republic

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


The past of meaning: res cogitans infiltrated into the world of res extensa

Locke: "The meaning of words being only the ideas they are made to stand for by him that uses them, the meaning of any term is then showed, or the word is defined, when by other words the idea it is made the sign of, and annexed to, in the mind of the speaker, is as it were represented, or set before the view of another; and thus its signification ascertained."

 meaning = a chunk of a mind-stuff glued to a word and animating it

Cartesian idea that it is only some otherwordly stuff, res cogitans, which is capable of animating the mechanical, spiritless res extensa of the world through which we steer our bodies.

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


Intentionality as an unexplained explainer?

Searle (1983, p.1):

"Intentionality is that property of many mental states and events by which they are directed at or about or of objects and states of affairs in the world."

"Meaning exists only where there is a distinction between Intentional content and the form of its externalization and to ask for the meaning is to ask for an Intentional content that goes with the form of exteralization." (ibid., 28)

"The philosophy of language is a branch of the philosophy of mind. In its most general form it amounts to the view that certain fundamental semantic notions such as meaning are analyzable in terms of more fundamental psychological notions such as belief, desire, and intention." (ibid., 160-1)

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


Wittgenstein’s beetle

Wittgenstein (1953, §293):

"Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a 'beetle'. No one can look into anyone else's box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. – Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. – But suppose the word 'beetle' had a use in these people's language? – If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. – No, one can 'divide through' by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is."

(However, what, if not our minds, animates our signs??)

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


What animates our signs?

Wittgenstein (1958, 4) :

"Frege ridiculed the formalist conception of mathematics by saying that the formalists confused the unimportant thing, the sign, with the important, the meaning. Surely, one wishes to say, mathematics does not treat of dashes on a bit of paper. Frege's idea could be expressed thus: the propositions of mathematics, if they were just complexes of dashes, would be dead and utterly uninteresting, whereas they obviously have a kind of life. ... And further it seems clear that no adding of inorganic signs can make the proposition live. And the conclusion which one draws from this is that what must be added to the dead signs in order to make a live proposition is something immaterial, with properties different from all mere signs. But, if we had to name anything which is the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use. ... The mistake we are liable to make could be expressed thus: We are looking for the use of a sign, but we look for it as though it were an object co-existing with the sign."

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


From revealing meaning to describing language games

That people attach something to a word within their minds is a fact of their individual psychologies not capable of establishing the fact that the word means something within their language – in order for it to mean something, it is not enough that each of them individually makes the association, he/she must also know that the others do the same, that he/she can use the word to intelligibly express it in various public circumstances etc. Hence what is needed aside of the private associations are some public practices that make the link public and shared. (And given the public practices, the private associations become the idle beetle in the box.)

"[For Wittgenstein,] the ultimate explanatory level in semantics is not given by references to unsaturation or to the form of objects or meanings, but by reference to the meaning-giving activity of human beings, of activity embodied in their endorsement of rules." (Coffa, 1991, 267)

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


'Nothing in meaning that was not in behavior before'

Quine (1969, p. 28): "each of us, as he learns his language, is a student of his neighbor's behavior" and "the learner has no data to work with, but the overt behavior of other speakers".

Quine (ibid., p. 29): "There are no meanings, nor likenesses or distinctions in meaning beyond what are implicit in people's dispositions to overt behavior".

Quine (1960, p. 221):

"One may accept the Brentano thesis [of the irreducibility of intentional idioms] either as showing the indispensability of intentional idioms and the importance of an autonomous science of intention, or as showing the baselessness of intentional idioms and the emptiness of the science of intention. My attitude, unlike Brentano’s, is the second. To accept intentional usage at face value is, we saw, to postulate translation relations as somehow objectively valid though indeterminate in principle relative to the totality of speech dispositions. Such postulation promises little gain in scientific insight if there is no better ground for it than that the supposed translation relations are presupposed by the vernacular of semantics and intention."

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


Wither meanings?

 natural sciences do sucessfully describe a great deal of 'what there is'. It seems reasonable to be very careful in deviating from them and engaging any 'supernatural' concepts

 behaviorism, abolishment of meanings?

Devitt (1994, 545): “Semantics is an empirical science like any other.”

Quine (1992, 56): “I would not seek a scientific rehabilitation of something like the old notion of separate and distinct meanings; that notion is better seen as a stumbling block cleared away.”

Chomsky (1993, 21), “comunication does not require shared 'public meanings' ... Nor need we assume that the 'meanings' of one participant be discoverable by the other."

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


Our linguistic practices

Do our, human language games characteristically differ from the games of our non-human pals or from the clatter of inanimate things? Do we need some specific irreducible concepts to acount for them (such as that of intension of Searle, that of truthof Davidson, 1999, etc.)?

Wittgenstein(1953): Our language games are characteristicallygoverned by rules, moreover by rules which are mostly implicit.

(Why implicit? The rules of language cannot be all explicit – in pain of a vicious circle. We do have explicit rules of chess; h – we can take a book and read them there. However, to do this, we must know how to interpret the signs in the book – we must know the rules of their interpretation. Perhaps also these rules are somewhere written, but it is clear that the regress must come to an end and at some point we must be able to follow the rules of interpretation without their being explicit.)

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


Rules vs. naturalism

To account for rules and rule-governed practices we do not need any concepts over and above those employed by natural sciences; we need a specificmode of speech, not merely the indicative one, but also the normative one: 'this ought to be done thus and so'

(How would we explain to somebody what football is? Would we dream to do it without speaking about the rules of footbal? And would this make our explanation somehow 'supernatural'?)

 The concept of rule makes it possible to account for the specificity of human language, meaning, and reason, without invoking any 'supernatural' concepts

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


Rules as the vehicle of rationality

Sellars (1949, 311):

"To say that man is a rational animal is to say that man is a creature not of habits, but of rules."

Brandom (1994, 33):

“For brutes or bits of the inanimate world to qualify as engaging in practices that implicitly acknowledge the applicability of norms, they would have to exhibit the behavior that counts as treating conduct (their own or that of others) as correct or incorrect.”

regularism: rules are mere regularities

 erases any distinction between a stone ‘following’ the law of gravitation and a person following the rules of traffic

regulism: rules of our language games are always explicit

 leads to a vicious circle

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


Pattern-governed behavior

Sellars (1954): besides the "merely conforming to rules" and "rule obeying" there is a specific kind of behavior, characteristic of language games, which he called pattern governed: "an organism may come to play a language game – that is to move from position to position in a system of moves and positions and to do it 'because of the system' without having to obey rules and hence without having to be playing a metalanguage game"

The pattern is something we were taught by our tutors ought to be, and hence we take it that we ought to do what would bring this ought-to-be about. Thus we reinforce the kind of behavior of others, and especially of our tutees, which conforms to the ought-to-be and we disapprove of that which does not conform to it. This creates a circle which tends to promulgate the pattern of behavior from generation to generation.

Human linguistic behavior requires a society with the mutual 'pressure' of its members on each other. The relevant patterns are forced on us not (directly) by natural selection, but by the ongoing demands of our peers. A rule is a lever needed to put the exclusively human kind of forming and maintaining patterns to work.

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning


The future of meaning:

our means of representing rule-governed practices

Meanings are reasonably seen as creatures of our activity of setting up rules to deliberately bind ourselves with them, thus entering new kinds of spaces which thus come into being. (Think about the exciting and inexhaustible space of football games which opens up for us when we agree to follow the rules of football.) Meaning is what emerges within the intricately orchestrated (arch)space that we have somehow managed to bring into being by means of accepting the rules which are in charge of our language games (especailly of what Brandom callsthe game of giving and asking for reasons).

Moreover, meanings are better seen not as things we describe when descriging our language games, but rather as tools of the description,

as means of our representing the games and their rules. To say that an expression means thus and so is essentially to say that it ought to be used in a certain way. Thus, meanings are 'beyond the natural, causal oder', but, at the same time, are not 'supernatural' in any despisable sense.

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning



Brandom, R. (1994): Making It Explicit, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.).

Chomsky, N. (1993): Language and Thought, Moyer Bell, Wakefield.

Coffa, A. (1991): The Semantic Tradition from Kant to Carnap, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Davidson, D. (1999): ‘The Centrality of Truth’, in J. Peregrin (ed.): Truth and its Nature (if Any), Kluwer, Dordrecht.

Devitt, M. (1994): 'The Methodology of Naturalistic Semantics', Journal of Philosophy 91, 545-572.

Peregrin, J. (2001): Meaning and Structure, Ashgate, Aldershot.

Quine, V.W.O. (1992): Pursuit of Truth, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Quine, W.V.O. (1969): Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, Columbia University Press, New York.

Searle, J. (1983): Intentionality, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Sellars, W. (1949): ‘Language, Rules and Behavior,’ in S. Hook (ed.): John Dewey: Philosopher of Science and Freedom, The Dial Press, New York, 289-315.

Sellars, W. (1954): 'Some Reflections on Language Games', Philosophy of Science 21, 1954, 204-228.

Wittgenstein, L. (1958): The Blue and Brown Books, Blackwell, Oxford.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953): Philosophische Untersuchungen, Blackwell, Oxford; English translation Philosophical Investigation, Blackwell, Oxford, 1953.

Peregrin: P & F of Meaning