Thursday, 29 September 2016

Are Meanings 'Individual Things'? An Important Unclarity in Lycan

I have recently been enjoying some of Lycan's papers, as well as his Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction. In Chapter 5 of the latter he writes:

In stating the foregoing meaning facts, I have at least half-heartedly tried to avoid “reification” of things called meanings; that is, talking about “meanings” as if they were individual things like shoes or socks.

'Like shoes and socks' how, though? The problem is: what does this mean?

Lycan then introduces the idea of 'entity theories':

Philosophers have made an issue of this. Let us use the term “entity theory” to mean a theory that officially takes meanings to be individual things.

And he goes on to contrast such theories with - you guessed it - 'use' theories, with the later Wittgenstein as the paradigm.

I think this is an unclear and misleading contrast. It is unclear what it takes to be an 'entity' or an 'individual thing'. The examples of shoes and socks may suggest that this notion is something like that of a physical object, or a 'concrete particular'. But that can't be right, as Lycan wants to count Fregean sense theories, or Moore's theory of propositions, for instance, as 'entity theories', but Fregean senses and Moorean propositions are not supposed to be physical, concrete things. Also, how are we to know what is official and unofficial? That distinction seems fishy here.

This contrast is misleading, I think, because it may suggest that the idea that meanings - or an aspect of them at least - should be thought of as roles in language systems, or uses of signs, commits one to some dark doctrine about these roles or uses not being 'individual things'. Which, as I have suggested, has no clear meaning. This may then marginalize this sort of role/use idea about meaning, for example by making it look as though it is automatically in contradiction with any technical semantic theory which maps expressions to entities of some sort.

I suggest that the real point in this neighbourhood, regarding a role/use conception of meaning, is not that on such a conception, meanings aren't entities, or individual things - whatever that means - but that they are, speaking loosely, 'things' in a quite particular, easy to misunderstand sense. In Wittgensteinian terms, the grammar of expressions like 'the meaning of that utterance' must be attended to, and our understanding of it not simply modelled on that of expressions which function very differently, say, 'the bearer of that name' or 'this shoe'.

Reference

Lycan, William G. (1999). Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge.

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