3 Important Ideas in the Philosophy of Language

How can we use philosophy to understand the relationship between language, meaning, and the mind?

Jul 30, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

ideas philosophy of language


What is language fundamentally? What is the essence of meaning? What does all of this have to do with the mind? These are some of the more fundamental questions in the philosophy of language, and attempts to answer them have proven central to the development of modern philosophy. In this article, we will explore the development of semantics, the notion of truth-conditional meaning, and mentalism—the idea that meaning is related to what goes on in our minds.


Philosophy of Language Between Two Philosophical Realms

Modern day photograph of Cambridge by Agropyron, 2013, via Pixabay.


Those who study the philosophy of language are, as the name suggests, concerned with asking certain fundamental questions about the reality of language, its purpose, its origins, what is possible and impossible to do with language, and other related inquiries.


The philosophy of language, as with many other areas of philosophy, can be approximately divided in the realm of “analytic” philosophy, which developed most of all in Cambridge in the early 20th century and is the kind taught in most English-speaking universities today, and “continental” philosophy, which is taught in continental Europe. These are probably best seen as intellectual traditions, and as with any attempt to talk about intellectual activity in terms of “tradition,” these should not be seen as perfectly distinct.


It is worth raising the analytic-continental distinction here because the philosophy of language is of special significance for those working in the former tradition. What counts as modern-day philosophy in the English-speaking world often tends to assume that, if there is an area of philosophical inquiry that is more basic than any other, it is the philosophy of language. Indeed, this “turn towards language” is often used as a way of characterizing the point at which analytic philosophy breaks off from the rest of philosophy.

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1. Semantics  

Photograph of David Lewis, 1990, via Manchester University.


The philosophy of language, especially as it is practiced in the Anglophonic world, often focuses on attempting to offer a theory of meaning. Yet it isn’t clear prima facie (at first glance) what it is to have a theory of meaning.


We can follow one of the most important modern analytic philosophers, David Lewis, in drawing the distinction between two kinds of theory of meaning. First, there is a theory about what a certain thing means for a certain group. That group might be “the speakers of x language,” or “those who understand y as a symbol of z kind.” Regardless, this theory should be distinguished from theories about how or why certain symbols acquire meaning in the way which they do. It is the latter that is the subject of inquiry for semantic theories. It is a presumption of most attempts to formulate a theory of the latter kind that even if the semantics of a particular language differ from those of other languages in various ways, all languages share certain formal semantic features, and these are what we study when we study semantics.


The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1563, via Kunsthistorisches Museum.


One complication with semantics is that, when we say that we are setting out to study meaning, it isn’t quite clear what we are studying the meaning of. The answer can’t just be “language”—we need to be more specific about the kind or area of language we mean. A class of theories, known as “classical semantic theories,” takes the approach that it is the meaning of sentences that we are mainly interested in.


2. Truth-Conditional Theories of Meaning

Bronze bust of Gottlob Frege, photograph by Hinnerk11, 2011, via Wikimedia Commons.


One of the dominant classical semantic theories today has its origins in the work of Gottlob Frege. The basic idea is that we know what a word means when we know the role it plays in a sentence, and that we know what a sentence means when we know what it would take for it to be true (or false).


Theories that take up this position are known as “truth-conditional theories of meaning.” They share the assumption that what makes something a language (or a linguistic expression) is that its parts represent the facts of the world in some way; they tell us what is or is not true.


Sentences are the fundamental unit of meaning, given that they represent facts. Central to this conception of language is the idea of reference. Tying a theory of meaning to the state of facts of the world means that there is not a great deal further to go before adopting a more thoroughly naturalistic account of meaning (that is, one where we can explain meaning solely in terms of facts about the natural world). Names and other expressions are here defined in terms of the things to which they refer, or which they “pick out.”


There are two ways of conceiving of reference. First, names can be understood as a function of a set of descriptions, and so a name is applicable if all or most descriptors apply. Second, proper names can be understood as rigid designators—the meaning of a name is not the product of some further descriptive content. This latter theory gained traction in the latter part of the 20th century and was most famously advocated by Saul Kripke in his set of lectures, published as Naming and Necessity.  


3. Mentalism: Language and the Mind

Free your mind by Mark Brierley, 2019, via the Cook House Gallery .


We can now turn to a very different approach to meaning. There is a class of theories of meaning which are known as “mentalist” theories of meaning. Mentalist theories are those that attempt to understand linguistic meaning in terms of how it relates to our minds. Fundamental explanations of language are to be given on the level of the mind—mental descriptions encompass semantic ones.


One of the most important advocates of this approach was Paul Grice, who developed what is known as the ‘Gricean program’ in semantics. The Gricean program proceeds from two core premises. First, facts about the meaning of expressions are to be explained based on what the speaker means when expressing them. Second, what a speaker means by their expressions is to be explained in terms of what they intended.


The difference which we need to grasp here is the one between what a sentence means in itself (expression-meaning), and what it means for the speaker (speaker-meaning). This is sort of like the everyday distinction we draw between the “literal meaning” of a sentence and what was intended by it, so Grice’s focus on the intention of the speaker, therefore, seems to have some basic plausibility at the outset.


Meaning What We Say

The Lost Mind by Elihu Vedder, 1864-1865, via the Met Museum.


The difference between expression-meaning and speaker-meaning is nicely conveyed using an example. If someone says, “I only have two hours left!”, then the expression meaning is simply that they are (for whatever reason) compelled to finish whatever task to which they are referring in the space of two hours. But of course, the speaker meaning is (or at least includes) the implication that they don’t have much time, they have to hurry, and so on.


For Grice, speaker meaning can be analyzed in terms of the response a speaker intends in the listener. Another important feature of speaker meaning is that the listener should recognize the speaker’s intention as that of speaker-meaning. Jeff Speaks offers the following summary of speaker meaning in Grice: “a means p by uttering x if and only if a intends in uttering x that (1.) his audience come to believe p, (2.) his audience recognize this intention, and (3.) (1) occur on the basis of (2). “


Plate (page 29) by Joan Miró, from the book “Parler seul” by Tristan Tzara, published 1950, via MoMA.



What are the issues with this way of conceptualizing meaning? Well, as Speaks observes, there are a variety of cases that simply do not seem to fall into any of these categories. For one thing, speech need not always convey new information—we might remind someone of something, or confess something that they know we’ve done.


For another, sometimes we aren’t hoping that people come to believe what we say because we intend for them to. Indeed, it is a feature of attempting to persuade someone that one can get them to believe what you want for reasons other than your wanting them to (“I know I’m biased because I already believe x, but really you should believe x because the evidence for it is so overwhelming”).


Lastly, and this is probably the most profound issue: not all speech has an intended listener. Indeed, the language of our thoughts—our inner monologue—presents some of the greatest challenges for any theory of meaning, and indeed any philosophy of language, to adequately account for.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.