Part 2 of my Intro to Language series.
Few people know that before he came to the United States and became a movie star, Charlie Chaplin performed in a comedy troupe with his parents in Shanghai, who raised him in the British Settlement in the Huangpu district of China’s largest city.
There is a reason few people know this. None of it is true. But remarkably, as you read through that opening sentence – let’s call it sentence (1) – you understood it perfectly, and quite easily, and not by having seen it before, and not by having ever read any sentences very similar to it.1 How is this possible?
One clue is that (1) is a string of English words, each of which you understand individually, and you also understand something about how words work when they are arranged together using the rules of English.
But how is it that a sequence of marks or noises is meaningful?
One common sense theory is that expressions have meanings because they stand for things: they mean what they stand for. Words are like labels. “Charlie Chaplin” denotes the person Charlie Chaplin. The word “cat” stands for a member of Felis catus. And the sentence “Charlie Chaplin kicked a cat” stands for Charlie Chaplin having kicked a cat, presumably because “Charlie Chaplin” denotes the person Charlie Chaplin, “kicked” stands for the act of kicking in the past, and “a cat” refers to a member of Felis catus.
This Referential Theory of Meaning is attractively simple, but it has some problems.
Not every word refers to an actual thing.
First, some words don’t refer to anything that exists. “Pegasus” does not denote anything real, because there is no winged horse after all. Also, consider the sentence “I saw nobody.” But to what does “nobody” refer?
(2) Ralph is fat.
What does “fat” denote? Perhaps it denotes something abstract, like the property of being fat. Or as Plato would have called it, The Fat Itself. So perhaps when we express (2) we mean that Ralph exemplifies the property of being fat. On this view, “is fat” means something like “has fatness.”
So maybe what we’re doing is joining together the name of a person (Ralph) with the name of a property (fat) by using “is.” But then what does “is” stand for? Perhaps it stands for the relation of “having.” So (2) really means something like “Ralph bears the having relation to fatness.”
Uh-oh. Now it looks like we need to explain what “bears” refers to. And this could go on into infinity, and we’d never be able to work out the referential meaning of the sentence.2
Third, there seem to be nouns that do not name individual things or kinds of things or even abstract things like the property of being fat. Think of words like “sake” and “behalf.”3 I might do something on another’s behalf, but this “behalf” doesn’t seem to be a thing or even an abstract object. These nouns are meaningful, but they do not seem to get their meaning by referring to anything at all.
Fourth, if we consider words other than nouns, they often fail to refer to anything at all: “very,” “of,” “a,” “yes,” and “alas.” These words don’t refer to anything, and yet they are meaningful.
If it’s correct that many words do not refer to things, this is a problem for the Referential Theory of Meaning.
Referential Theory treats a sentence as a list of names for things to which the words refer. But a list of names says nothing:
(3) Bob Jill Washington Phyllis
So how could we get meaning from a list of words that refer to things? There must be something else going on, too.
There is more to meaning than reference. Some words can refer to the same thing but not share the same meaning, for example “Joseph Ratzinger” and “the Pope.”
If not Referential Theory, then what?
There are other theories of meaning that surpass the Referential Theory, though they have their own problems. But before we discuss them, we will have more to say about how reference works. Even if reference cannot account for how we use language by itself, it is still an important part of how language works.4
- Here it will be obvious to some that I am imitating the opening of William Lycan’s superb Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction. The first many parts of this course will be following Lycan’s book closely. [↩]
- This infinite regress was discovered by Bradley in 1930, Appearance and Reality, p. 17-18. For a further discussion of Bradley, see Loux, Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, chapter 1. [↩]
- These are two of Quine’s examples in Word and Object. [↩]
- A modern, systematic attack on Referential Theory is found in Waismann, The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy, chapter 8. [↩]