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Saying and Meaning

Satisfactory Essays
Saying and Meaning

The burden of this essay will be to see how the words we utter bear meaning. We use speech to communicate our intentional attitudes to others. On this basis, I propose to treat meaning as that which is conveyed from a speaker to a listener. A simple model of the communication process will be used as follows. First, a speaker frames a sentence to convey an intentional attitude. Second a listener attends to the sounds and comes to a meaning. The essence of human communication is that the listener comes to understand the speaker’s meaning. Both speaker and listener accomplish their tasks by processes of which they are unaware because they are non-conscious brain processes. But these species-typical processes for encoding and decoding meanings result in the characteristic linguistic behaviours which we call speaking, listening, conversing, arguing and the rest. I shall maintain that to understand meaning we must not look at brain processes but at how we operate in the world using language. In moving to a conclusion I shall suggest that, in many cases, as Wittgenstein put it, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language.’

John Searle identifies two types of meaning in speech as sentence meaning or word meaning and speaker meaning. He defines sentence meaning as follows:

Sentences and words have meanings as part of a language. The meaning of a sentence is determined by the meaning of the words and the syntactical arrangement of the words in the sentence.

On this basis sentence meaning is the conventional meaning of the words as they are usually used in a lexical sense. Thus in the Case A below there is a clear meaning. A woman observes a couple leaving a party and comments to her partner,

(Case A) Jim and his wife are leaving the (party*).

The conventional or sentence meaning here is as follows; two people, a man (Jim) and his wife are leaving the social function (as opposed to a political party*). But even in this simple example, the bracketed information shows that the context of the utterance is important in enabling the listener to reach the meaning intended by the speaker. The speaker and listener are usually able to pick out the word meaning appropriate to the particular occasion. This use of language in everyday social contexts is what Wittgenstein refers to as ‘agreement in form of life.
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