Meaning and Reference: Some Chomskian Themes

Robert J. Stainton

in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language

Published in print September 2008 | ISBN: 9780199552238
Published online September 2009 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Philosophy

Meaning and Reference: Some Chomskian Themes

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This article introduces three arguments that share a single conclusion: that a comprehensive science of language cannot (and should not try to) describe relations of semantic reference, i.e. word–world relations. Spelling this out, if there is to be a genuine science of linguistic meaning (yielding theoretical insight into underlying realities, aiming for integration with other natural sciences), then a theory of meaning cannot involve assigning external, real-world, objects to names, nor sets of external objects to predicates, nor truth values (or world-bound thoughts) to sentences. Most of the article tries to explain and defend this broad conclusion. The article also presents, in a very limited way, a positive alternative to external-referent semantics for expressions. This alternative has two parts: first, that the meanings of words and sentences are mental instructions, not external things; second, that it is people who refer (and who express thoughts) by using words and sentences, and word/sentence meanings play but a partial role in allowing speakers to talk about the world.

Keywords: science of language; semantic reference; linguistic meaning; natural sciences; word–world relations; predicates

Article.  14765 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; Philosophy of Language

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