Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, LMU, Munich
The question how language, a sequence of events in spacetime, can have meaning — which seems not to be in spacetime — has puzzled philosophers since antiquity, though it only came to dominate philosophy explicitly over a century or so of wide-ranging developments that culminated, provisionally, in the work of the later Wittgenstein. Philosophers continue to discuss these questions, and to read Wittgenstein, but they also seem largely unaware that their central questions about the nature and possibility of meaning, which they approach in the abstract, as conceptual questions, have also become a thriving subject of empirical research. This post briefly explores some consequences of this new research for philosophical questions about meaning.
One relevant context for such questions has always been the puzzle of how to coordinate two aspects of language, its subjective or cultural aspect (“meaning” in the sense of what a sentence, or any other object or action, “means to me”) and its computational aspect (“meaning” in the sense of generative linguistics or in the sense of a computer program, in which a syntactic structure built up from atomic components is endowed – or not – with an analogously compositional semantics). The subjective aspect is inherently more salient with respect to natural languages, while the computational aspect is more in the foreground where constructed languages are concerned, especially axiomatically constructed (or otherwise clearly defined) languages of mathematics or computation. What they gain in precision, though, such languages sacrifice in rhetorical power and suggestiveness; there would appear to be a trade-off between the cultural and the computational aspects of language. However, while this Janus-faced property of language has been apparent to all major theorists of language from Locke to Frege and Saussure, their interest in language has usually focussed mainly on only one of the two aspects at the expense of the other, and theories of the coordination between these two aspects have remained quite superficial. The few attempts at bringing these aspects into some sort of relation to each other have usually tried to reduce one of them to the other. The later Wittgenstein (followed in this respect by ordinary language philosophers) tried to bring logic and constructed languages more generally within the scope of social practices and the natural languages mediating them, while Chomsky tried to bring ordinary language within the scope of the combinatorial.
The empirical research of recent decades on these subjects has mostly avoided this kind of reductionism. It does usually focus on only one of these aspects or kinds of language — naturally enough, because you have to start somewhere, and where you start generally influences which kinds or aspects of language you consider. But there is on the whole, in most of this research, a recognition that both aspects (and both kinds of language) exist, but there is little explicit discussion of the relation between them. Read more ›