Meaning and reference

by Neil Rickert

I take the view that meaning is subjective.

Many people argue that meaning is objective.  Putnam, in effect, was arguing that in his “The meaning of meaning.”  But it has seemed to me that Putnam’s argument was really about reference rather than about meaning.

In this post I shall discuss both meaning an reference.  And I shall attempt to relate them to my posts about carving up the world.

Intension and extension

It is common to discuss meaning related topics in terms of extension and intension.  The extension of a word is the set of things that it can refer.  So the extension of “cat” would be the set of all cats.  The term “intension” is supposed to be something internal, related to the word.  The intension of “cat” might consist of all properties that characterize cats.

I don’t much like the terms “extension” and “intension”.  To me, they seem artificial.  So I won’t be using that terminology in this post, except for this initial paragraph.

Carving up the world

In my last few posts, I have discussed carving up the world.  And I want to use that as a basis for my discussion of meaning and reference.  So I’ll start with a review.

We carve the world into parts such as cats, dogs, tables, chairs, etc.  And we give names to the parts.  We share this with the society (with our culture).  So I have described that in terms of social conventions — carving conventions and naming conventions.

In order to decide that something is a cat (or a chair, or a table), we presumably use some sort of criteria.  However, we often do not know what criteria we are using.  Our perceptual system seems to tell us that what we are looking at is a chair or a table or a cat.  But if you were to ask my on what basis I could tell that it was a cat, I might stumble around looking for an explanation.  And that’s because the decision is made at a pre-conscious level.  So I am not fully aware of what criteria are being used.

Reference and meaning

A reference occurs when our language statements mention one or more of the parts into which we carve the world.  We can often observe what other people are referencing or referring to.  This is how we reach agreement on how to carve up the world.  And this agreement is basic to how language works.  So we can reasonably say that reference is objective.

I take the meaning of a word to be the criteria that I would normally use to identify that named part of the world.  It is often hard to pin down meaning, and I relate that to the difficulty we have in pinning down the criteria that our perceptual systems are actually using.

While I can observe your behavior and see that your behavior is related to a cat, I cannot tell what criteria you are using to identify it as a cat.  We can observe the parts into which other people divide up the world.  But we cannot observe what criteria they are implicitly using while doing that dividing up.  So if meanings are those criteria, then meanings would appear to be unavoidably subjective.

Putnam’s view

I’ve mentioned Putnam’s paper “The meaning of meaning”.  Putnam was arguing that “meaning is not in the head.”  One of his illustrating examples had to do with gold.  He argued that a gold expert provides part of the meaning of “gold”.

That always seemed wrong to me.  From my point of view, it is part of my meaning for “gold”, that there are times when I need to consult a gold expert to decide if something is gold and not pyrites (“fool’s gold”).  What the expert says does not become part of my meaning.  But the need for an expert is part of my meaning.  So I see the gold expert as being involved in reference, but not as being involved in meaning.

Analytic statements

A statement such as “the cat is on the mat” only involves reference.  So whether that statement is true can be agreed upon as an objective matter, assuming that there is agreement on the circumstances where that statement is expressed.

But take a statement like “All emeralds are green.”  For some people, the green color might be an important criterion for identifying an emerald.  And, for such a person, “all emeralds are green” would be an analytic truth — true by virtue of the meanings of the terms.  However, for myself, I don’t know emeralds from other jewelry.  What makes something an emerald, is that the jeweler says it is an emerald.  So for me, “all emeralds are green” would be a synthetic statement, not an analytic statement.

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