A framework for a theory of meaning

Robert Wilensky
1987 Proceedings of the 1987 workshop on Theoretical issues in natural language processing -   unpublished
The notion of meaning is central to theories of language. However, there appears to be considerable confusion regarding what a theory of meaning should do, and how it pertains to other linguistic issues. In this paper, I attempt to rectify one aspect of this confusion, namely, the relation of literal meaning, sentence meaning, and speaker meaning. To do so, I present two polar opposites, a standard orthodoxy and a radical challenge. I then attempt to show that, as in most cases, the truth is
more » ... es, the truth is not in between, but rather, requires a completely different framework. The Right-Wing Orthodoxy First, there is a widely held orthodoxy, which I refer to as the "right wing" position on meaning. The right wing meaning dogma includes the following assumptions: (1) There is a meaning that can be associated with a given sentence independent of context, usage, or speaker. This is known as the sentence meaning. Of course, a given sentence may have several such meanings, in which case it is ambiguous, or none, in which case it is anomalous. (a) Sentence meaning is compositional. That is, it may be determined from word meanings together with general rules of grammatical construction. (b) The sentence meaning is the same as the literal meaning of a sentence. While there may be many different interpretations that we can assign to a sentence, these do not belong to the sentence per se. Rather, they require recourse to the context, to the speaker's intentions, to extra-grammatical knowledge, and so on. Only the literal/sentence meaning is strictly a function of the sentence alone. (c) The sentence meaning (of a sentence in the indicative) establishes a set of truth conditions for that sentence. Most truth-theoretical accounts equate these truth conditions with the meaning of the sentence. (d) The sentence meaning is completely independent of context. While the truth of a sentence's meaning may vary with context, and other interpretations may become available in different contexts, the sentence meaning remains constant over all such variation. Thus, while the truth of the sentence "Today is Tuesday" is a function of when it is uttered, and that of "My name is Peter Smith" a function of who does the uttering, the literal meaning, i. e., the set of conditions that determines whether the sentences are true, is for both sentences invariant under such changes.
doi:10.3115/980304.980326 fatcat:j2ccqvaqizeqxk3suh5yo35e34