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The contemporary philosophy of language

Internalism and externalism

According to Frege and Russell, the meaning of words is largely identified with their concept. Each word thus connotes a concept, that is to say a set of predicates which makes it possible to form a class of objects (we also speak of intension). Understanding is then understood, as in Descartes, as an internal operation of the mind: to grasp the meaning of a word is to possess the concept or the mental representation allowing it to be applied correctly.

This internalist, descriptivist and mentalist conception was challenged in the 1960s by Keith Donnellan (1966), Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam. Two authors had already made a critique of the mentalist conception of meaning: Gilbert Ryle (The Concept of Mind, 1949), for analytical philosophy, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty for continental philosophy.

Donnellan distinguished between attributive and referential use of definite descriptions: the attributive use of “Smith’s murderer” refers to the person who murdered Smith, whoever it was; the referential use designates the one that is held to be the culprit of the assassination, and which can therefore differ, in case of error, from the first.

Kripke, on the other hand, shows the irreducible separation that exists between a definite description and a proper name: the latter do not connote a set of properties, but are, according to him, rigid designators. Thus, Aristotle does not refer to the properties “student of Plato” and “Greek philosopher”, but rather functions as a rigid designator, designating Aristotle in all possible worlds. Thus, even if in a possible world Aristotle had not been a philosopher, the proper name Aristotle would nevertheless continue to designate the individual in question. Kripke thus shows that one cannot reduce the meaning of a proper name to a set of properties, as Russell still believed, who succeeded (excluding logically proper names) in transforming, with the help of existential quantifiers, proper names and definite descriptions into indefinite descriptions.

Finally, in the Twin Earth experience, Putnam emphasizes a shared linguistic competence, or linguistic “division of labour”: the meanings are not psychological (meaning ain’t in the head) but social. Thus, I may misunderstand the denotation of a term, for example if a beech and an elm are to me indistinguishable; it does not mean that the denotation of the terms “beech” and “elm” change when I use them, or when a ranger uses them.

The philosophy of ordinary language or pragmatics

Paul Grice had emphasized, in the Sixties, the meaning of the speaker in contrast to the meaning of the utterance itself. At the same time, John L. Austin publishes How to Do Things with Words, a book that opposes the objectivism of Frege and Russell, to emphasize statements that do not depend on truth conditions, but speech acts (a promise or an order, for example, is neither true nor false, but acts on the world). Developed by Austin, the notion of performativity will become central in the philosophy of ordinary language, a term which contrasts it with insistence on the formal language (that of logic) of Frege and Russell.

This one, which also finds in the second Wittgenstein, that of the Philosophical Investigations, a precursor, is indeed more interested in natural language than in formal language, and its enunciation in concrete frameworks. Close, in this sense, to pragmatics, it finds in John Searle one of its great defenders.

The philosophy of language today

Three strong theses dominated the philosophy of language in the twentieth century, although they are not shared by all:

  1. The meaning of a declarative statement (which states a fact taken to be real, e.g. “it is raining”) is identified with its truth conditions, i.e. the specification of the circumstances under which the statement is true. The declarative utterance is the preferred linguistic unit: the meaning of a word or any other part of the utterance depends on its contribution to the truth conditions of the utterance to which it belongs.
  2. “The semantic value of a complex expression depends functionally on the semantic values ​​of its constituents”, which refers to the “compositionality of meaning” (Diego Marconi, The Philosophy of Language in the 20th Century).
  3. The mental entities (images, representations, etc.) associated with linguistic expressions are not the meanings of the expressions: this is independent of our mental representations: the theory of meaning is, in general, not psychological. Mental elaboration of linguistic expressions, or understanding as a mental process, is not essential to determining the meaning of expressions.

Theses 1 and 2 have led a certain number of philosophers to attribute several semantic values ​​to each expression, for example meaning and denotation in Frege, or intension and extension in Carnap. Russell argued against this position, however, as direct reference theorists do it today.

Frege supported theses 2 and 3, as well as the first, which is also underlined by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus logico-philosophicus.

It includes texts translated and adapted from Wikipedia by Nicolae Sfetcu

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