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Philosophy Of Language

  Language is a natural object of enquiry in philosophy, since it is central to the discussion of meaning. On the whole, linguists and philosophers find that their interests overlap to the greatest degree in the domains of semantics and pragmatics. In addition, philosophers have played an important role in determining what the subject matter of linguistics should be.

John Locke\'s ideational theory of meaning (1690) suggested that a person\'s meanings are first expressed in the private language of thought and then translated into a linguistic form suitable for communication in words. However, it has been argued that the intrinsic privacy of thought would prevent two speakers from ever being sure that when they use a particular word they are expressing the same meaning thereby. The concept behind the word for each speaker may be entirely idiosyncratic, and the privacy of thought denies the speaker any means for demonstrating to others which particular concept underlies the use of a word.

A further important consequence of Locke\'s theory is that it propounds the complete separation of language and thought, with the view that language is entirely dependent on thought. However, it has been argued that, beyond a very basic level, thought would be impossible without language. Some philosophers of language argue that language furnishes people with a highly sophisticated mode of thinking about the world, although it should be pointed out that this thesis of linguistic relativity finds little favour among many psycholinguists.

A theory of meaning which avoids the problem of a private language of thought draws on the notion of reference, which is the action performed by a speaker when referring to something. A form of primitive reference holds that a word is no more than a label, which implies that the meaning of a word is the object it stands for. On this view, the problem of understanding meaning would amount to no more than knowing the object, or referent, for a word. But a problem arises with examples of the following kind: (1) The morning star is the evening star. The sentence in (1) is known as an identity statement, since the two expressions morning star and evening star refer to one and the same referent (the planet Venus). Strictly speaking, it should not be possible for an identity statement to convey new information. However, at one point in the history of astronomy, and for many lay people even now, the statement in (1) does in fact express a novel idea. We must therefore distinguish reference from sense, the latter being defined as the sign (word form) which picks out the object being referred to. With this distinction, it becomes clear how a single referent can bear more than one sense. As a result, it emerges that words denote, while speakers refer. A further traditional concern has been to establish the truth value of sentences. Drawing on mathematical systems of logic, the conditions under which a sentence can be described as either true or false are determined. More recent theories on the relationship between language and meaning have attempted to incorporate the role of speaker beliefs and the context of utterance as fundamental factors which affect the interpretation of the actual words uttered on a particular occasion. MS

Further reading A.C. Grayling, An Introduction to Philosophic Logic; , J.J. Katz (ed.), The Philosophy of Linguistics.



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