Friday, 7 March 2008

Grice on Meaning

Grice’s paper, “Meaning”, represents a significant shift from approaches to the meaning of utterances that look to the meaning of the words used to one which looks, instead, to the content of the mental or psychological states of speakers. Grice begins by drawing a distinction between two senses of ‘mean’ as it occurs in sentences of the form:
(*) x means that p.
Where x ranges over objects which have meaning and p over declarative sentences. Grice illustrates the two senses of ‘mean’, which he calls “natural” (N) and non-natural (NN), with the following two examples:
(N): Those spots mean measles

(NN): Those three rings on the bell (of the bus) mean that the bus is full.
Grice maintains that sentences like (N) are factive, while sentences like (NN) are not. For example, Grice notes that it would be contradictory to say:
(N*): Those spots mean measles, but he hasn’t got measles
This is because in the case of natural meaning, sentences which have the form ‘x means that p’ entail ‘p’. It should be noted that strictly speaking the schema ‘x means that p’ entails ‘p’ does not apply to (N*) since the left conjunct does not contain an appropriate substitution instance for ‘that p’. Thus, (N*) should be rewritten as follows:
(N**): Those spots mean that he has measles, but he doesn’t have measles
The same holds true for (N). This minor incongruity in his example aside, I take Grice’s general point regarding the factivity of natural meaning to be well placed.

By contrast, the non-natural sense of ‘mean’ is non-factive, so that the schema ‘x means that p’ does not entail ‘p’. This is easily seen when one considers that from the fact that the conductor rings the bell three times it does not follow that the bus is full. At best, it only follows that the conductor thinks that the bus is full. Generalising from the examples given above, the difference between natural meaning (henceforth ‘meaningN’) and non-natural meaning (henceforth ‘meaningNN’) is this: it is not consistent with something’s having a meaningN that what it meansN is false; but it is consistent with something’s having a meaningNN that what it meansNN is false. (Grice discusses additional differences between the two cases, but I take this to be the main one).

Grice distinguishes between natural and non-natural meaning in order to avoid confusion. However, it is the latter that he is primarily concerned with since examples of meaning that involve language (Grice’s main focus) are typically cases of meaningNN. Grice attempts to show that ultimate source of an utterance’s meaningNN is the mental content of the speaker. He attempts to do this in two steps:
(Step 1) Occasion meaning: give a definition of single utterances couched entirely in terms of the speakers’ intention to produce certain effects in their audience.

(Step 2) Timeless meaning: give a definition of expression meaning couched entirely in terms of the definition of idiolect meaning given in (Step 1).
If Grice’s overall project is successful, then we could eliminate the semantic notion of timeless expression meaningNN in favour of the psychological notion, thereby showing that it is the mental states of speakers, rather than the meaningNN of expressions, that are the ultimate source of an utterance’s meaningNN. After consider two alternative definitions, which he rejects as insufficient, Grice settles on the following definition of idiolect meaningNN:
(IM): A specific utterance φ meansNN that p, if and only if, in performing it, the utterer intends:
(a) that an audience will come to believe that p, and
(b) that this audience will recognise intention (a), and
(c) that the recognition in (b) will cause belief in (a)
The timeless meaningNN of an expression, in turn, is defined as follows:
(TM): An expression θ meansNN that p within a certain linguistic community if and only if most utterances of θ by members of that community meanNN that p.
One difficulty with the above definitions, (IM) and (TM), is that they say nothing about word meaningNN. Even if we grant that Grice is right to claim that a sentence means what it does because of regularity in the meaning of utterances using it, it is not clear that the meaning of words can also be defined in terms of such regularities. After all, we often do use words in novel combinations, and the meaning of each individual word may change slightly given where it appears in the sentence and the other words around it. Moreover, it is not clear how, give Grice’s claim that the meaning of a sentence has to do with how it is regularly used, it is not clear how I can utter a completely novel sentence, “She was erratic like a lunatic chimpanzee on a merry-go-round!”, and it still be meaningful. Of course, if we did have a theory of word meaning, we would simply need to show how the meaning of the novel sentence arises from the meaning of each of the words. However, the above objection may not be as serious as it first appears. While not explicitly a theory of word-meaning, word-meaning can be seamlessly integrated into Grice’s account of timeless meanings. On this picture, word-meaning is simply a function of how words, as opposed to sentences, are commonly used by a particular linguistic community.

1 comment:

J. L. Speranza, Esq. said...

What an excellent precis of Grice's point. I love the fact that Grice was careful, when reprinting his "Meaning" in his first (posthumous) book, "Studies in the Way of Words" (echoing Locke), to mark the date: 1948. Stevenson's book ("Ethics and language", that Grice cites) was just off from the presses, and in fact, the Grice Collection at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, now displays an item which even predates this, and where Grice considers why he chose to focus on 'mean' rather than on Peirce's 'crypto-technical' remarks (as Grice was lecturing at Oxford on a 'general theory of signs').

You're always welcome at the Grice Club!