Theories of meaning (traditional)

Discussed BC in both Greek philosophy and Indian linguistics. Much theoretical progress in latter half of the 20th century.

An elusive concept which has been theorized from many different perspectives: meaning as use, as behaviour, as intention, as concepts, as images, as truth-conditions, and so on.

It is best to disperse the term into several concepts which can each be defined appropriately.


J D Fodor, Semantics (Hassocks, 1977)

Truth and meaning

The evaluation of meaning according to each one of the five major substantive theories of meaning and truth is presented below. The question of what is a proper basis for deciding how words, symbols, ideas and beliefs may properly be considered to truthfully denote meaning, whether by a single person or an entire society, is dealt with by the five most prevalent substantive theories listed below. Each theory of meaning as evaluated by these respective theories of truth are each further researched by the individual scholars supporting each one of the respective theories of truth and meaning.[2][3][4]

Both hybrid theories of meaning and alternative theories of meaning and truth have also been researched, and are subject to further assessment according to their respective and relative merits.[2][5][6]

Substantive theories of meaning

Correspondence theory

Correspondence theories emphasise that true beliefs and true statements of meaning correspond to the actual state of affairs and that associated meanings must be in agreement with these beliefs and statements.[7] This type of theory stresses a relationship between thoughts or statements on one hand, and things or objects on the other. It is a traditional model tracing its origins to ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.[8] This class of theories holds that the truth or the falsity of a representation is determined in principle entirely by how it relates to “things”, by whether it accurately describes those “things”. An example of correspondence theory is the statement by the thirteenth-century philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas: Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus (“Truth is the equation [or adequation] of things and intellect”), a statement which Aquinas attributed to the ninth-century neoplatonist Isaac Israeli.[9][10][11] Aquinas also restated the theory as: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality”.[12]

Correspondence theory centres heavily around the assumption that truth and meaning are a matter of accurately copying what is known as “objective reality” and then representing it in thoughts, words and other symbols.[13] Many modern theorists have stated that this ideal cannot be achieved without analysing additional factors.[2][14] For example, language plays a role in that all languages have words to represent concepts that are virtually undefined in other languages. The German word Zeitgeist is one such example: one who speaks or understands the language may “know” what it means, but any translation of the word apparently fails to accurately capture its full meaning (this is a problem with many abstract words, especially those derived in agglutinative languages). Thus, some words add an additional parameter to the construction of an accurate truth predicate. Among the philosophers who grappled with this problem is Alfred Tarski, whose semantic theory is summarized further below in this article.[15]

Coherence theory

For coherence theories in general, the assessment of meaning and truth requires a proper fit of elements within a whole system. Very often, though, coherence is taken to imply something more than simple logical consistency; often there is a demand that the propositions in a coherent system lend mutual inferential support to each other. So, for example, the completeness and comprehensiveness of the underlying set of concepts is a critical factor in judging the validity and usefulness of a coherent system.[16] A pervasive tenet of coherence theories is the idea that truth is primarily a property of whole systems of propositions, and can be ascribed to individual propositions only according to their coherence with the whole. Among the assortment of perspectives commonly regarded as coherence theory, theorists differ on the question of whether coherence entails many possible true systems of thought or only a single absolute system.

Some variants of coherence theory are claimed to describe the essential and intrinsic properties of formal systems in logic and mathematics.[17] However, formal reasoners are content to contemplate axiomatically independent and sometimes mutually contradictory systems side by side, for example, the various alternative geometries. On the whole, coherence theories have been rejected for lacking justification in their application to other areas of truth, especially with respect to assertions about the natural world, empirical data in general, assertions about practical matters of psychology and society, especially when used without support from the other major theories of truth.[18]

Coherence theories distinguish the thought of rationalist philosophers, particularly of Spinoza, Leibniz, and G.W.F. Hegel, along with the British philosopher F.H. Bradley.[19] Other alternatives may be found among several proponents of logical positivism, notably Otto Neurath and Carl Hempel.

Constructivist theory

Social constructivism holds that meaning and truth are constructed by social processes, are historically and culturally specific, and are in part shaped through power struggles within a community. Constructivism views all of our knowledge as “constructed”, because it does not reflect any external “transcendent” realities (as a pure correspondence theory might hold). Rather, perceptions of truth are viewed as contingent on convention, human perception, and social experience. It is believed by constructivists that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, are socially constructed.

Giambattista Vico was among the first to claim that history and culture, along with their meaning, are human products. Vico’s epistemological orientation gathers the most diverse rays and unfolds in one axiom – verum ipsum factum – “truth itself is constructed”. Hegel and Marx were among the other early proponents of the premise that truth is, or can be, socially constructed. Marx, like many critical theorists who followed, did not reject the existence of objective truth but rather distinguished between true knowledge and knowledge that has been distorted through power or ideology. For Marx, scientific and true knowledge is “in accordance with the dialectical understanding of history” and ideological knowledge is “an epiphenomenal expression of the relation of material forces in a given economic arrangement”.[20]

Consensus theory

Consensus theory holds that meaning and truth are whatever is agreed upon—or, in some versions, might come to be agreed upon—by some specified group. Such a group might include all human beings, or a subset thereof consisting of more than one person.

Among the current advocates of consensus theory as a useful accounting of the concept of “truth” is the philosopher Jürgen Habermas.[21] Habermas maintains that truth is what would be agreed upon in an ideal speech situation.[22] Among the current strong critics of consensus theory is the philosopher Nicholas Rescher.[23]

Pragmatic theory

The three most influential forms of the pragmatic theory of truth and meaning were introduced around the turn of the 20th century by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Although there are wide differences in viewpoint among these and other proponents of pragmatic theory, they hold in common that meaning and truth are verified and confirmed by the results of putting one’s concepts into practice.[24]

Peirce defines truth as follows: “Truth is that concordance of an abstract statement with the ideal limit towards which endless investigation would tend to bring scientific belief, which concordance the abstract statement may possess by virtue of the confession of its inaccuracy and one-sidedness, and this confession is an essential ingredient of truth.”[25] This statement stresses Peirce’s view that ideas of approximation, incompleteness, and partiality, what he describes elsewhere as fallibilism and “reference to the future”, are essential to a proper conception of meaning and truth. Although Peirce uses words like concordance and correspondence to describe one aspect of the pragmatic sign relation, he is also quite explicit in saying that definitions of truth based on mere correspondence are no more than nominal definitions, which he accords a lower status than real definitions.

William James’s version of pragmatic theory, while complex, is often summarized by his statement that “the ‘true’ is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as the ‘right’ is only the expedient in our way of behaving”.[26] By this, James meant that truth is a quality, the value of which is confirmed by its effectiveness when applying concepts to practice (thus, “pragmatic”).

John Dewey, less broadly than James but more broadly than Peirce, held that inquiry, whether scientific, technical, sociological, philosophical or cultural, is self-corrective over time if openly submitted for testing by a community of inquirers in order to clarify, justify, refine and/or refute proposed meanings and truths.[27]

A later variation of the pragmatic theory was William Ernest Hocking’s “negative pragmatism”: what works may or may not be true, but what fails cannot be true, because the truth and its meaning always works.[28] James’s and Dewey’s ideas also ascribe meaning and truth to repeated testing, which is “self-corrective” over time.

Pragmatism and negative pragmatism are also closely aligned with the coherence theory of truth in that any testing should not be isolated but rather incorporate knowledge from all human endeavors and experience. The universe is a whole and integrated system, and testing should acknowledge and account for its diversity. As physicist Richard Feynman said: “if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong”.[29]

Associated theories and commentaries

Some have asserted that meaning is nothing substantially more or less than the truth conditions they involve. For such theories, an emphasis is placed upon reference to actual things in the world to account for meaning, with the caveat that reference more or less explains the greater part (or all) of meaning itself.

Logic and language

The logical positivists argued that the meaning of a statement arose from how it is verified.

Gottlob Frege

In his paper “Über Sinn und Bedeutung” (now usually translated as “On Sense and Reference”), Gottlob Frege argued that proper names present at least two problems in explaining meaning.

  1. Suppose the meaning of a name is the thing it refers to. Sam, then, means a person in the world who is named Sam. But if the object referred to by the name did not exist—i.e., Pegasus—then, according to that theory, it would be meaningless.
  2. Suppose two different names refer to the same object. Hesperus and Phosphorus were the names given to what were considered distinct celestial bodies. It was later shown that they were the same thing (the planet Venus). If the words meant the same thing, then substituting one for the other in a sentence would not result in a sentence that differs in meaning from the original. But in that case, “Hesperus is Phosphorus” would mean the same thing as “Hesperus is Hesperus”. This is clearly absurd, since we learn something new and unobvious by the former statement, but not by the latter.

Frege can be interpreted as arguing that it was therefore a mistake to think that the meaning of a name is the thing it refers to. Instead, the meaning must be something else—the “sense” of the word. Two names for the same person, then, can have different senses (or meanings): one referent might be picked out by more than one sense. This sort of theory is called a mediated reference theory. Frege argued that, ultimately, the same bifurcation of meaning must apply to most or all linguistic categories, such as to quantificational expressions like “All boats float”.

Bertrand Russell

Logical analysis was further advanced by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their groundbreaking Principia Mathematica, which attempted to produce a formal language with which the truth of all mathematical statements could be demonstrated from first principles.

Russell differed from Frege greatly on many points, however. He rejected Frege’s sense-reference distinction. He also disagreed that language was of fundamental significance to philosophy, and saw the project of developing formal logic as a way of eliminating all of the confusions caused by ordinary language, and hence at creating a perfectly transparent medium in which to conduct traditional philosophical argument. He hoped, ultimately, to extend the proofs of the Principia to all possible true statements, a scheme he called logical atomism. For a while it appeared that his pupil Wittgenstein had succeeded in this plan with his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Russell’s work, and that of his colleague G. E. Moore, developed in response to what they perceived as the nonsense dominating British philosophy departments at the turn of the 20th century, which was a kind of British Idealism most of which was derived (albeit very distantly) from the work of Hegel. In response Moore developed an approach (“Common Sense Philosophy”[30]) which sought to examine philosophical difficulties by a close analysis of the language used in order to determine its meaning. In this way Moore sought to expunge philosophical absurdities such as “time is unreal”. Moore’s work would have significant, if oblique, influence (largely mediated by Wittgenstein) on Ordinary language philosophy.

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