How Is Language Possible? Philosophical Reflections on the Evolution of Language and Knowledge

By J. N. Hattiangadi | Go to book overview
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3The Structure of Language and the
Limits of Innovation

A. The Nature of Meaning

i. Introduction

The evolution of language, which has caught our attention, is such a broad topic that were we not to force ourselves away from its interesting ramifications we would soon get lost in the mist which surrounds it. Unfortunately, much of the mist connected with the evolution of language has to do with the evolution of its semantics. It is extremely difficult to understand how communication is possible between human beings who are innovative. This is especially so if the innovation concerns their language.

The distinctive theory that is being proposed in this and in the following chapter, as a possible solution to some of these problems, is a double theory of meaning: each word or phrase has two semantic items associated with it (quite apart from reference) which are often conflated and called 'the meaning of a word or phrase', or 'the sense of a word or phrase'. One of these I shall call the 'total' meaning of a word or phrase. It is something very volatile, changing with each intellectual situation. An aspect of a part of this total meaning will be called the 'restricted' meaning of a word. It is the other entity associated with a word and is not only much more stable than the 'total meaning', but is also an entity that depends more clearly on context and, at times, on explicit convention. Both these meanings can change from speaker to speaker, from time to time. We shall see how having these two semantic tools facilitates an understanding of linguistic innovation which surpasses that provided by any theory previously available to us.

The central problem of this chapter is the somewhat technical task of finding a way of subsuming the theory of reference under the theory of 'total meaning'. To do this we shall have to elaborate the thesis that the meaning (total meaning) of a word or phrase is a set of theories. This will be our first task, and it must be undertaken with some care. Deriving a theory of reference from our theory of meaning has, however, one great accidental benefit. It shows how our theory can satisfy the desideratum which stipulates that we must indicate the limits of innovation in a language. Since this is such an important aim, we may even make this the main point

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