"Words have meaning." This seems to be about as simple and clear an assertion of a factual state of affairs as any statement that one can make. On closer inspection however, it merely raises the question as to what "meaning" is.(1) If in saying; "Words have meaning." one intends to convey the idea that meaning is a property of words in the same way that a dog has four legs and a tail, then I would suggest that the speaker has a rather inaccurate notion of what meaning is. In order to clarify the nature of meaning, this paper will examine how speech act theory explains some of the many different ways in which meaning is communicated through speech acts. However, before doing that, it is important to give some consideration to the ontological status of words and meaning so as to avoid some of the common misconceptions which seem to be associated with this type of analysis.
First, it should be noted that words are not "objects" or "things" that have properties of their own in the same way that actually existing things do. Words are relational entities. Which is to say that words are composed of parts that are not integrated by any form or structure intrinsic to the word itself. The symbols (marks/sounds) which taken together constitute a word, make the word real insofar as it exists outside the mind; but, as vibrations in the air or as marks on paper, words exist as relational entities and not as actual things.(2) This is due to the fact that the medium which carries the word is not proportionate to the idea or concept which constitutes the form of the word.(3) All that the air or paper and ink can carry is the symbolic representation of the actual form which is understood within the mind, and not the form itself.
When a word is spoken or written it becomes a relational entity which lacks the power to do or to cause anything. While it is true that the vibrations in the air or the marks on a piece of paper can stimulate the senses, a word as such, can not cause knowledge. As Augustine noted:
We learn nothing by means of these signs we call words. On the contrary, as I said, we learn the force of the word, that is the meaning which lies in the sound of the word, when we come to know the object signified by the word. Then only do we perceive that the word was a sign conveying that meaning.(4)
The person who hears or sees the word must already know what it means if she is to be able to understand it. That is why, if someone does not understand the meaning of a word, you must explain it using other words which she does understand, give examples, or point to some real thing so that she can come to know what it is that you are talking about. If human beings could directly cause knowledge in one another, then we would communicate through a direct spiritual contact such that one person would be able to directly infuse a specific form into the mind of another. Since that is not how we communicate however, it is clear that our words do not directly cause knowledge to appear in the mind of another. Instead, our words are tokens or signs which can only function as a formal cause in that if the other person already knows what the word means, she will be able to recognize it and form the appropriate concept in her own mind.
Communication between human beings, therefore, involves an active receptivity on the part of the hearer and not a mere passivity. The spoken or written word does not directly actualize some potency in the mind of the receiver. Rather, it prompts him or her to look at things in a new way so as to be able to form new concepts and thereby grow in understanding. Thus, words are not in themselves "things" which cause knowledge, but relational entities which carry the value of meaning. It is meaning which must be present for communication to occur. It follows that, although words are not actual things, and as such, are not the efficient cause of the knowledge one gains through the use of language, words do have value. Their value lies precisely in the meaning which they carry.
It is important to note that the concept which gives a word its meaning is only joined to the word in the mind of the person who understands it. The spoken or written word is in itself, just a symbol which must have a concept attached to it; first, by the person who speaks or writes the word, and secondly, by the person who hears or reads the word. So it is that the meaning which a word has is totally subject dependent, both from the standpoint of the person who speaks a word, and from that of the person who hears it.
The meaning of a word is something which is simply projected onto the token which carries it. This is done, not only by the person who first speaks the word, but also by the person who hears it. Therefore, if any meaningful communication is to occur between persons, there must be at least some intersubjective agreement as to what the words mean, given the context in which they are used. The fact that there are many different languages and many different words which all can be used to refer to the same thing, shows just how subjective the whole process of communication through the use of words really is. If it were not for definitions, grammar, and all the other rules concerning how to use a particular language, we would hardly be able to communicate with each other at all.
Given the relational status of words, and the subject dependency of the meanings which they carry, one should anticipate a degree of complexity to the word - meaning relation that would render any simplistic or reductionist theory of meaning untenable. It is for this reason that speech act theory becomes very helpful at this point because it reveals how a difference in use also entails a difference in meaning. The distinction which J.L. Austin makes between locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts illustrates this point very well. Austin writes:
We first distinguished a group of things we do in saying something, which together we summed up by saying we perform a locutionary act, such which is roughly equivalent to uttering a certain sentence with a certain sense and reference, which again is roughly equivalent to 'meaning' in the traditional sense. Second, we said that we also perform illocutionary acts such as informing, ordering, warning, undertaking, &c., i.e. utterances which have a certain (conventional) force. Thirdly, we may also perform perlocutionary acts: what we bring about or achieve by saying something, such as convincing, persuading, deterring, and even, say, surprising or misleading. Here we have three, if not more, different senses or dimensions of the 'use of a sentence' or of 'the use of language' (and, of course,there are others also).(5)
Here Austin restricts 'meaning' to the sense and reference of a locution. He then goes on to locate the force of an illocutionary act in the conventional usage of an expression which thereby determines the kind of act which the speaker is performing. For example, when a jury delivers a verdict of "guilty" the utterance of the word has a certain force determined by convention, which the use of the word 'guilty' in other situations does not have even though the sense and reference of the word could be exactly the same.
In general, it seems fair to say that the 'meaning' of a word for Austin is a matter of definition as specified by the object, action, or state of affairs that one is using the word to refer to. Defining meaning in terms of sense and reference alone, however, is somewhat misleading as Searle points out.
If one thinks of sentential meaning as a matter of sense and reference, and tacitly takes sense and reference as properties of words and phrases, then one is likely to neglect those elements of meaning which are not matters of words and phrases, and it is often those elements which in virtue of their meaning are such crucial determinants of illocutionary force.(6)
The illocutionary force is of course, distinct from 'meaning' in the sense in which Austin uses the word. Even if the force of an expression is determined primarily by using the expression according to some established convention, however, it also seems to be the case that the force is attached to and carried by an utterance in much the same way as the sense and reference are, except that the force is attached through a social convention, while sense is attached through a linguistic convention, and reference is attached intentionally by the speaker.
For example, if I say to a friend; "I promise that I will help you paint your house on Saturday." I use the sentence to refer to myself (I), another person (you), an activity (paint), an object (your house), a time (Saturday), and a condition (help). Thus, I intentionally fix the reference of these words, which in turn means that specific definitions of words are applicable in this situation and others are not. The word 'promise' is added in order to clarify the illocutionary force of the sentence so that my friend knows that I am undertaking an obligation to help him and am not merely expressing an intention or making a prediction about what I will probably do on Saturday. All of this taken together and spoken within an appropriate context is what I mean by the sentence and is the meaning which the sentence has when I speak it.
If meaning, therefore, is taken to be whatever intelligible content is projected onto a sign, symbol, or token by a rational being within the context of performing a communicative action, the restriction of 'meaning' to sense and reference would appear to be rather arbitrary. While it is true that illocutionary force is distinct from sense and reference, it is also true that the meaning of an utterance is not complete apart from an inclusion of the illocutionary force as an aspect of the meaning of the utterance. Searle takes note of this point when he criticizes Austin's distinction between locutionary and illocutionary acts. no sentence is completely force-neutral. Every sentence has some illocutionary force potential, if only of a very broad kind, built into its meaning. For example, even the most primitive of the old-fashioned grammatical categories of indicative, interrogative, and imperative sentences already contain determinants of illocutionary force. For this reason there is no specification of a locutionary act performed in the utterance of a complete sentence which will not determine the specification of an illocutionary act.(7)
If one adopts the broader notion of meaning as previously set forth, it follows that words or even sentences, considered as abstract entities, do not have meaning. It is only communicative acts that have meaning, because meaning only becomes attached to words or sentences through the action of a speaker or hearer. An expression takes on a meaning first, in the speech act when a speaker uses it to express a thought; and, secondly, in the receptive act when a hearer interprets the utterance and assigns it a meaning out of his or her own knowledge and experience. In between the speaker and the hearer an utterance has a certain meaning attached to it that the speaker intends the hearer to grasp so as to complete the communicative act. It is very misleading however, to think that words or sentences simply have meaning apart from the speech act or the receptive act which gives them their meaning.
An objection seems to be raised by Searle at this point when he claims that the meaning of a sentence is entirely determined from within.
The principle that the meaning of a sentence is entirely determined by the meaning of its meaningful parts I take as obviously true; what is not so obviously true, however, is that these include more than words (or morphemes) and surface word order. The meaningful components of a sentence include also its deep syntactic structure and the stress and intonation contour of its utterance. Words and word order are not the only elements which determine meaning.(8)
Based on this statement, it would appear that Searle holds that while meaning involves far more than just sense and reference, sentences have meaning apart from their use in particular speech acts. Thus, while Searle has enlarged the scope of 'meaning' beyond that which Austin gave to it by locating meaning in sentences rather than words or phrases, he still detaches meaning from complete speech acts in holding that the meaning of a sentence is entirely determined by the meaning of its parts. While I would disagree with such an interpretation of meaning, Searle's position has a subtlety to it which deserves further consideration, however, for he also holds that:
The speech act or acts performed in the utterance of a sentence are in general a function of the meaning of the sentence. The meaning of a sentence does not in all cases uniquely determine what speech act is performed in a given utterance of that sentence, for a speaker may mean more than what he actually says, but it is always in principle possible for him to say exactly what he means.(9)
Searle makes a distinction here between sentence meaning and speaker meaning which he will draw on in order to explain indirect speech acts, metaphor, and other complex situations where the literal meaning of a sentence is not identical with the speaker's meaning. At the same time he does not wish to completely separate sentence meaning from speaker meaning for as he goes on to say:
for these reasons a study
of the meaning of sentences is not in principle distinct from a study of
speech acts. Properly construed, they are the same study. Since every meaningful
sentence in virtue of its meaning can be used to perform a particular speech
act (or range of speech acts), and since every possible speech act can
in principle be given an exact formulation in a sentence or sentences (assuming
an appropriate context of utterance), the study of the meanings of sentences
and the study speech acts, are not two independent studies but one study
from two different points of view.(10)
If the study of speech acts and is as closely linked to the study of sentence meaning as Searle suggests, how is it that he also claims that sentence meaning is distinct from speaker meaning? In rejecting Austin's distinction between locutionary and illocutionary acts, Searle had argued that while sense and reference are conceptually distinct from illocutionary force, they are intrinsically united with it in the utterance of a complete sentence that they are inseparable from each other. Similarly, is it not also the case that while sentence meaning and speaker meaning are conceptually distinct they too are inseparably joined together within the context of a particular speech act?
When speaker meaning and the literal meaning of a sentence coincide the meaning of a sentence is that which is in accord with all of the relevant linguistic and social conventions which apply to the normal use of the sentence. If a speaker uses a sentence metaphorically, however, he gives the sentence a metaphorical meaning such that it does not have a literal meaning unless a hearer misinterprets the speaker and takes the sentence literally and gives it a literal interpretation. In which case, the hearer has misunderstood the speaker by paying more attention to the linguistic conventions associated with the sentence than to the intentions of the speaker.
The only other sense in which a sentence has a literal meaning which differs from the speaker's meaning is if someone else asks; "what would this sentence mean if it were not being used metaphorically?" The question here is simply one of inquiring into the meaning the sentence would have if the speaker meaning and the literal meaning were the same. In determining what the literal meaning would be, this person gives an interpretation to the sentence which differs from that which the original speaker gave it. Thus, it is possible to speak about a difference between the original speaker's meaning and the meaning of the sentence if the intention of the original speaker is prescinded from such that one gives a meaning to the sentence based on the applicable linguistic conventions alone.
The mistake which needs to be avoided here however, is that of thinking that the sentence as used by the original speaker had both a literal meaning and a metaphorical meaning such that one could speak of the sentence meaning as being different from the speaker meaning as Searle does. Unless a speaker intends to give two meanings to a sentence, it has one and only one meaning, and that is the meaning which the speaker gives to it. Someone else can give a different meaning to the same sentence based on linguistic conventions alone, but it then has a different meaning. The original speech act did not have two meanings, a speaker meaning which can be attributed to the speaker and a literal or sentence meaning which belongs to the sentence. The speech act had one and only one meaning, and that is the meaning which the speaker gave to the sentence.
In itself, a sentence has no meaning whatsoever. Someone has to give it a meaning, because meaning is entirely subject dependent. Sounds and marks are not intelligent beings that have some meaning of their own apart from that which is projected onto them by someone. Therefore, meaning is not and cannot be a quality of a sentence which inheres in it in the same way that actual properties inhere in real things. Meaning is a quality of speech acts or of receptive acts but not of sentences. Every time a person speaks or hears a sentence he or she gives it a meaning; but, to think that literal meaning or sentence meaning somehow exists independently along side of the speaker or hearer meaning is to completely misunderstand the nature of meaning.
In order to see the full importance of recognizing the ontological status of meaning prior to analyzing it, one need only to look more closely at the way in which Searle distinguishes speaker meaning from sentence meaning.
sentences and words have
only the meanings that they have. Strictly speaking, whenever we talk about
the metaphorical meaning of a word, expression, or sentence, we are taking
about what a speaker might utter it to mean, in a way that departs from
what the word, expression, or sentence actually means.... To have a brief
way of distinguishing what a speaker means by uttering words, sentences,
and expressions, on the one hand, and what the words, sentences, and expressions
mean, on the other, I shall call the former speaker's utterance meaning,
and the latter, word, or sentence, meaning.(11)
The position which Searle clearly takes here is that words and sentences have a meaning of their own which differs from that of the speaker meaning in cases of ironic, indirect, or metaphorical usage. If a sentence is to have a literal meaning, however, someone has to give it a literal meaning. If the speaker uses the sentence metaphorically, then it has the metaphorical meaning which the speaker intends it to have. It does not also have a literal meaning unless someone else interprets the sentence in a way that the speaker did not intend.
People mean things by what
they say, and they give meaning to the expressions which they use, but
words and sentences simply do not have meanings of their own apart from
being used by someone.So it is that, words have definitions and sentences
have conventional usages, but only linguistic acts have meaning.
1. 1. John Searle raises fundamentally the same question as follows: "What is the difference between just uttering sounds or making marks and performing an illocutionary act? One difference is that the sounds or marks one makes in the performance of an illocutionary act are characteristically said to have meaning, and a second related difference is that one is characteristically said to mean something by the utterance of those sounds or marks." (Speech Acts, 1969, p. 42.)
2. 2. Words, like other artifacts such as paintings, buildings, and machines have functions and features which make them appear to be like natural substances, (eg. chemical elements - compounds, and all living things), but these features are attached to the entity extrinsically rather than being an expression of the intrinsic form or structure of a specific kind of thing.
3. 3. I will use the terms 'idea', 'concept', and 'form' interchangably throughout this paper, to refer to whatever mental content is joined to individual words, without invoking any particular theory as to how this actually occurs.