Ideational theories of meaning

Theories which say that words have meaning by standing for ideas, thoughts or concepts, and so on.

Such theories are found in Aristotle’s (4th century BC) early work De Interpretatione (On Interpretation), especially chapters 1-4; and in the writing of English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704).

They have the advantage over naming theories of meaning in that they provide a single kind of thing for diverse kinds of word to stand for, but share with such theories problems over what ‘standing for’ amounts to.

J Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), book 3

In the philosophy of language, metaphysics, and metasemantics, meaning “is a relationship between two sorts of things: signs and the kinds of things they intend, express, or signify”.[1]

The types of meanings vary according to the types of the thing that is being represented. Namely:

  • There are the things in the world, which might have meaning;
  • There are things in the world that are also signs of other things in the world, and so, are always meaningful (i.e., natural signs of the physical world and ideas within the mind);
  • There are things that are necessarily meaningful such as words and nonverbal symbols.

The major contemporary positions of meaning come under the following partial definitions of meaning:

  • Psychological theories, involving notions of thought, intention, or understanding;
  • Logical theories, involving notions such as intension, cognitive content, or sense, along with extension, reference, or denotation;
  • Message, content, information, or communication;
  • Truth conditions;
  • Usage, and the instructions for usage; and
  • Measurement, computation, or operation.

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