What things have meanings?

Words mean things: the meaning of deciduous is that the leaves fall in the winter; the meaning of lapin or of Kaninchen is rabbit. Words almost always have meanings, and it's unusual to come across forms like zarble that have none. Morphemes or parts of words can have meaning, as with un-, and usually we can work out the meaning of composite words from their parts, as with unanalysable. Occasionally we find a word that seems as if it should give us a meaning, but which resists understanding, as with neo-ironic.

Sentences have meanings: Mon tailleur est riche means My tailor is rich. Do paragraphs have meanings? 'What is the meaning of this paragraph?' might be a request to translate each of these sentences; but we would not ask for the meaning of an entire novel that way. If you know the meanings of all the words in a sentence you should also get the meaning of the sentence, but we've all come across sentences that are too tangled, ambiguous, or confused to reveal a clear meaning.

Gestures can have meanings: my pointing at something can mean 'It's over there' or 'Look over there' or 'That's the one I was talking about' or 'Look at that'. Equally it can mean that I'm busy (I can't speak right now), or that I'm angry, or I'm lazy. It could mean both kinds of things at the same time. But note that, while we might say my pointing gesture meant in this case 'Look over there', it wouldn't mean 'I'm busy'. It's not my way of saying I'm busy, it's my way of getting you to look over there while I'm busy.

Unconscious or unintentional acts (and for the moment let's not try to distinguish those) can mean things: my wearing bright clothes can mean I'm happy, my shaky hands can mean I'm scared, my wearing the dirty old jacket can mean my good one's in the dry-cleaner's or that I'm planning to clean the house.

States of inanimate objects can mean things, whether the possibility of that state is intentional or not: the green traffic light means it's safe to go, the spots on these leaves mean Dutch elm disease.

A dream, a chance meeting, a rainbow or a flight of crows, a brave act of defiance, a painting or sculpture, a human life, all these are sometimes said to have meaning. There are manifold different kinds of things involved in being or having (a) meaning.

Is there anything that 'meaning' has in common?

Can we find something that 'meaning' means here? Well, should we expect to? Should we expect a word with a wide range of uses to have something central in it that's unfailingly present every time we use it? Is there one thing that's common to all meanings; and if there is, is that what we mean by meaning?

What most of them seem to have in common is some kind of representation or translation of a different kind of thing. Words seldom mean actual words (a few do, like monosyllable or synonym); the word deciduous refers to what leaves do in winter. The words rabbit, lapin, Kaninchen all represent a certain furry animal: they're symbols or signs of it. It may be easier to give a meaning in terms of known words: saying lapin means rabbit is easy. It doesn't mean the word 'rabbit', a thing beginning with R, it means a thing with furry ears. We could say lapin means the same (thing) as rabbit.

Sentences indicate the conscious thought of the author or speaker. Actions indicate something internal about their doer: intentional for pointing, unintentional for shivering. Red spots and green lights tell us about other states of the world that cause them. For those who believe in them, dreams or portents are supposed to tell or indicate something more than what's visible on their surface.

Words mean things, and people mean things. We can say 'the word X means such-and-such', and 'I mean such-and-such': these are quite separate kinds of meaning, but related somehow. The possible dissociation between sentence meaning and speaker meaning can be illustrated by a slip of the tongue: if I say I was feeding the penguins in Trafalgar Square, the word 'penguins' in one sense means those black and white jobs, but what I meant by 'penguins' was pigeons, and in a sense that's what it meant in that sentence.

What do philosophers mean, if anything?

So far I've given various loosely related descriptions for three things: first, the underlying thing represented (object, idea, concept, cause, internal state); second, the thing that represents it (sign, symbol, mark, image, indication, translation); and third, the relationship or process that turns one into the other (representing, translating, pointing, showing, indicating). Around 1900 the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure both came up with ways of formalizing these varied relationships between the signified and the signifier, and this is known as the field of semiotics, the study of signs generally.

About the same time the mathematician Gottlob Frege made an important distinction between two ways in which a word or expression means something. It can have an internal structure giving it meaning, so that the Morning Star is the bright star visible in the morning. But it also has an external object to point at, the actual planet Venus. Frege called these the sense (Sinn) and the reference (Bedeutung). The sense of 'my oculist' is 'the eye doctor I consult' and the reference is old Dr Blenkinsop down the street. And Bertrand Russell analysed expressions he called definite descriptions, such as 'the president of France', which consistently has just one sense but can refer to different people from time to time.

Clearly these are valuable distinctions, in these cases at any rate. We immediately get into trouble if we then assume that all words or names or expressions have two kinds of meaning, a sense and a reference. (But why should we do this at all? Well, perhaps we're philosophers and have nothing better to do.) If Tibbles is my cat then the name 'Tibbles' refers to my cat Tibbles. Has it got a sense? What if my cat's name is Fluffy: same sense as the ordinary word 'fluffy'? And what does 'cat' refer to? Well, 'my cat' or 'this cat' has a clear reference, and inside that, 'cat' surely must also refer to that particular cat being spoken about. No?

Faced with perplexity, philosophers on the whole like to make things up so that theories work out neatly. Probably every word has a meaning: in 'My cat is happy', we need to say what the meanings of 'my', 'is', and 'happy' are too. I can point to my cat but how can I point to happy? Or to happiness? Perhaps every word has a sense and a reference. We can do a decent dictionary definition for the sense of 'happy', but what philosophers have tended to do for its reference is to say that it refers to all happy things. The referent of 'happy' is just the set of happy things. This strikes me as not too far from saying we can't see any unicorns in the real world, so all unicorns in the real world must be invisible. Remind me again why 'happy' needed to have a referent at all. And for generality they would tend to say that 'cat' by itself refers to the set of all cats.

The idea that meaning is some kind of translative or representative process between things, coupled with the idea that a meaning is a reference, together with the fact that sentences have meanings, leads us... I'm sorry, leads philosophers to the conclusion that sentences as a whole refer to things. One of the early targets for this reasoning was called the proposition. So Mon tailleur est riche and My tailor is rich were said to express the same proposition, namely that my tailor is rich or wealthy. The form of words could differ but the idea was the same. Perhaps propositions were ideas, things in our brains, a kind of mental sentence, and by uttering 'My tailor is rich' we were referring to the thought we had about the tailor being rich. Some serious theories of cognition do claim that there is some kind of symbolic language common to us all and underlying our different conscious languages. That's not necessarily to say that when we speak a translation of this we mean or point back to the mentalese.

Problems abound with trying to shoehorn all meaningful sentences into a general theory. If names mean the people they refer to (I don't remember agreeing to that, by the way), what about Sherlock Holmes? But I can say sort-of true things about him: Sherlock Holmes was a detective and lived in Baker Street. And really true things: Sherlock Holmes didn't really exist. And what about things true in context (which is most things): Today is Sunday. We have to distinguish the abstract sentence 'Today is Sunday' from the utterance I'm making right now, 'Today is Sunday', from the proposition I meant by it, that today is Sunday. And Saul Kripke poses this sort of question: What if the person given the name Socrates was swapped soon after birth, and it was his fishmonger's baby who grew up as the philosopher known to history as Socrates? And Hilary Putnam asks: What if there was a possible world the same as ours, with the same language, except that what we and they call 'horses' were biologically different species inside?

The meanings of words, names, and expressions have their own issues; the meanings of sentences, statements, and actions have different issues. A complete sentence 'It's cold in here' has a sense, composed essentially of the senses of its words bound together by syntax. The relationship of the words to things in the world is semantics. The relationship of the actual utterance of the sentence to the state of the world is pragmatics: if I say 'It's cold in here' that has a semantic meaning intrinsic in the words used, but it can also have further communicative meaning: I'm making small talk to be polite, or I want you to close the window.

Ludwig Wittgenstein promoted the idea that meanings resided in use; an utterance means whatever I'm using it for in the particular social and cultural context, and we have complicated networks of rules and understandings for these. J.L. Austin clarified some of the different pragmatic uses: the direct illocutionary force (in 'Please close the window', 'Could you close the window?', 'I now pronounce you man and wife') and the indirect perlocutionary force that gets you reacting to what I'm saying without my openly putting it in. They laid the groundwork for the modern exploration of the multifarious ways utterances and actions can 'mean' various things at different levels.

The Meaning of Life

I'm afraid ideas like the meanings of artworks, or people's lives, or even the Meaning of Life, are too vague for me to understand, and I have no interest in them. Presumably there's supposed to be some vaguely signifying relationship, but I can't see what. (Though it doesn't much help if you shift the metaphysical burden over to purpose.) With words and sentences and gestures we can get some way to analysing and explaining the issues.