Theories of Meaning

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In the course of history, the nature of meaning has been one of the major issues in the philosophical debate. The issue was first raised in the ancient Greek world, and was subsequently tackled by numerous philosophers. In the 19th century, meaning also entered the realm of linguistics – first in the context of diachronic linguistics, later also as a synchronic study. The main concepts in the theory of meaning, apart from meaning itself, are synonymy (or sameness of meaning), significance (or possession of meaning), and analyticity (or truth by virtue of meaning). The main concepts in the theory of reference are naming, truth, denotation (or truth of), and extension. Another is the notion of values of variables. All the notions of the theory of meaning are out of the same box. There are several theories of meaning, such as Referential Theory, Ideational Theory, Use Theory, and Behavioural Theory.

1. The Referential Theory
The theory of meaning which relates the meaning of a word to the thing it refers to, or stands for, is known as the referential theory. This theory was first expounded by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. It is generally possible to explain the meaning of a word by pointing to the thing it refers to. In the case of proper nouns and definite noun phrases, this is especially true. When we say "The most famous English poet is William Shakespeare", we do use "the most famous English poet" and "William Shakespeare" to mean a particular person. When we explain the meaning of desk by pointing to the thing it refers to, we do not mean a desk must be of the particular size, shape, colour and material as the desk we are pointing to at the moment of speaking. We are using this particular desk as an example, an instance, of something more general. That is, there is something behind the concrete thing we can see with our eyes. And that something is abstract, which has no existence in the material world and can only be sensed in our minds. By saying desk is "a piece of furniture with a flat top and four legs, at which one reads and writes", we are in resorting to the concept of desk, or summarizing the main features, the defining properties, of a desk. But not every word has a reference. Grammatical words like but, if, and do not refer to anything. And words like God, ghost and dragon refer to imaginary things, which do not exist in reality. What is more, it is not convenient to explain the meaning of a word in terms of the thing it refers to. The thing a word stands for may not always be at hand at the time of speaking. Even when it is nearby, it may take the listener some time to work out its main features. For example, when one sees a computer for the first time, one may mistake the monitor for its main component, thinking that a computer is just like a TV set. This Referential Theory of linguistic meaning would explain the significance of all expressions in terms of their having been conventionally associated with things or states of affairs in the world, and it would explain a human being’s understanding a sentence in terms of that person’s knowing what the sentence’s component words refer to. It is a natural and appealing view. Indeed it may seem obviously correct, at least so far as it goes. And one would have a hard time denying that reference or naming is our cleanest-cut and most familiar relation between a word and the world. Yet when examined, the Referential Theory 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 * Referential Theory treats a sentence as a list of names for things to which the words refer. But a list of names says nothing: “William Shakespeare England” The meaning cannot be understood, if the sentence is not grammatically correct. * There is more to meaning than reference.

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