Use theories of meaning

Theories springing mainly from Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), that the meaning of a word or sentence is to be sought in its use, not in its correspondence to some entity (as naming and correspondence theories of meaning in general imply).

The use in question normally means actual usage, but may also refer to an alleged correct usage; or the meaning of a word may be explained in terms of rules for its use (also see: de facto and de jure theories of meaning).

Sometimes such theories were regarded not so much as theories of meaning but as replacing theories of meaning, as in the slogan ‘Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use’ (common in the heyday of linguistic philosophy, with which use theories were closely associated).

It may be objected, however, that use is indeed different from meaning, but cannot simply replace it since it presupposes it.

L Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1952), especially part 1, p.1-43

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

2 thoughts on “Use theories of meaning

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