How to Understand Language

How to Understand Language: A Philosophical Enquiry

Bernhard Weiss
Copyright Date: 2010
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    How to Understand Language
    Book Description:

    An ambitious work that endorses a broad approach, it argues strongly against the roles both of truth theory and of radical interpretation. Weiss discusses a range of relevant themes relating to language, including translation, interpretation, normativity, community, and rules in order to reshape our understanding of language. A rigorous and systematic analysis, How to Understand Language advances the work of key thinkers in the area.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-9465-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. 1. The puzzles of language
    (pp. 1-12)

    One often hears it remarked that language is a marvellous tool. The metaphor is striking and worth taking seriously, if only because it is so pregnant. In what sense is language a tool? Tools enable or facilitate us to do certain things. What sorts of things do we use language to achieve? What is it about language that, unlike most other tools, it deserves to be marvelled at? Are aspects of the marvelling distinctly philosophical?

    Consider a humdrum, familiar tool: a hammer. We use a hammer to achieve a variety of things: to bang in a nail, to drive in...

  5. 2. The starting-point for analysis
    (pp. 13-32)

    Although it has a wider range of techniques available to it, analytical philosophy is closely linked with a bold, direct approach towards understanding a philosophically problematic concept: conceptual analysis. Conceptual analysis aims at revealing the nature of a complex concept by revealing how it is constituted. It proceeds by focusing on central applications of the concept and detailing necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of the concept in those circumstances. The central applications are those, if they exist, from which all other applications flow, that is, can be explained. Let us consider an example of attempted conceptual analysis, in...

  6. 3. Analysing sentence-meaning
    (pp. 33-56)

    What we wanted as a starting-point for analysis were ordinary sentences involving the ascription of meaning to a kind of linguistic expression. When we come to the case of sentences, it is hard to see how this would work if we focus on specifications of the form:


    What would we replace “m” by when, for instance,sis “snow is white”? One might just be prepared to contemplate the following:

    “snow is white” means the state of affairs that snow is white.

    Two things are worth noting: first, the notion of a state of affairs is a...

  7. 4. Analysing synonymy
    (pp. 57-64)

    Our attempt to elucidate the notion of meaning via analysis seems to depend solely on how one rates Grice’s attempt to analyse sentence-meaning. It is worth noting that even if that account does not face internal difficulties, it still does not resolve the question of meaning itself but reduces linguistic meaning to mental meaning plus convention. But there is another potential starting-point for analysis. Rather than analysing an assignment of meaning to an expression, one might instead try to analysesameness of meaning or synonymy. Our aim in analysis will accordingly be to arrive at true sentences of the form:...

  8. 5. Radical translation
    (pp. 65-80)

    One reading of Quine’s argument in “Two Dogmas” is that it advocates a sceptical view about notions such as analyticity, synonymy and meaning. However, Grice and Strawson (1956) rightly point out that if we are to view the argument in this way, then the argument makes a huge assumption. It assumes that if a concept is legitimate, then we should be able to define it. Quine gives no justification for such an assumption and consequently scepticism about meaning and cognate notions is not warranted. However, Grice and Strawson’s objection makes a significant concession to Quine; it concedes that there is...

  9. 6. The structure of a theory of meaning
    (pp. 81-94)

    Two recent chapters (3 and 5) have closed with suggestions about theories of meaning: in Chapter 3 we left Schiffer speculating on how a Gricean approach might be developed to give a systematic explanation of the meanings of words and compounds thereof – the upshot of this project would be a theory of meaning; and Chapter 5 suggested that the indeterminacy of translation reveals no deep truth about the nature of meanings but an inadequacy in the project of translation, which should therefore be replaced by that of constructing a theory of meaning. The preliminaries to that project are sketched...

  10. 7. Radical interpretation
    (pp. 95-124)

    The claim we had isolated as central to Davidson’s view of the theory of meaning is that an adequate theory of truth is a theory of meaning. A theory of truth, we noted, will be a systematic specification of truth-conditions for each sentence in the language. Many theories of truth cannot be treated as theories of meaning. So what qualifies a theory of truth as adequate and therefore as a theory of meaning?

    Davidson wants a theory of meaning that will make sense of the idea that the meaning of a sentence is determined by the meanings of its parts...

  11. 8. Linguistic norms, communication and radical interpretation
    (pp. 125-142)

    In his later work in the philosophy of language Davidson analyses communicative exchanges and arrives at the startling and weighty conclusion that linguistic norms and conventions are entirely inessential to linguistic meaning. I argue that this inference is flawed: if we place the account of communication against the backdrop of Davidson’s own views about radical interpretation, then it becomes evident that linguistic normsarean essential feature of the Davidsonian picture.

    Let us begin by clarifying. In claiming that there arelinguistic normsI am claiming that, if a speaker means something by a certain term, then there are ways...

  12. 9. Linguistic normativity
    (pp. 143-154)

    Linguistic items are meaningful and most of our uses of them are meaningful too. In order for this to be the case, language is bound by a set of correctness-conditions according to which uses of language can be categorized as either correct or incorrect – that is, there are linguistic rules – or so it is at least plausible to suppose. Our question now is not whether or not language is meaningful and normative in this sense but whether those correctness-conditions normatively bindspeakers’ useof language: does this normativity of language entail the normativity of linguistic usage? Ought speakers...

  13. 10. Radical or robust?
    (pp. 155-172)

    I have argued that radical interpretation is an essential ingredient in Davidson’s framework for three reasons. The first is that the broadly extensionalist approach of the radical interpreter promises to shed light on the intensionality of language. The point is worth reprising in the context of Dummett’s (1993: essay 1) discussion of Davidson. Recall that, at a certain stage, Dummett complains about the triviality of a Davidsonian meaning-theory, which he takes to be modest and thus philosophically no more interesting than a translation manual. The complaint is surely just if you view a Davidsonian meaning-theory simply as the interpretative scheme...

  14. 11. Language and community
    (pp. 173-180)

    There are a daunting number of deep and difficult questions lurking in the area of the relations between language use and its communal setting. Some we shall need to look at; others will take us too far afield into issues lying at the intersection of epistemology and the philosophies of language and mind. Some questions concern natural language: in what sense is natural language a communal phenomenon? Must it be understood in its communal context? In what sense is natural language a private phenomenon? Must it be understood in terms of private acts of conferring meanings on signs? Can it...

  15. 12. Rules and privacy: the problem
    (pp. 181-200)

    In sections 172–242 of hisPhilosophical InvestigationsWittgenstein considers the nature of following a rule. We shall concentrate on Kripke’s (1982), now classic, exposition of this argument.

    Consider the following, natural enough, train of thought. There are many addition sums that I have never performed – let us, following Kripke, assume that 68 + 57 is among them. Now one normally supposes that, given what I have always meant by “+”, there is just one correct response to this addition sum, namely: 125. In other words, if asked what the sum of 68 and 57 is according to the...

  16. 13. Rules and privacy: the solution?
    (pp. 201-230)

    At §201 – quoted above – Wittgenstein (1958) draws the paradoxical conclusion from his previous meditation on following a rule and then goes on to diagnose the error. The solution requires us to make two moves: first, to reject the view that grasping a rule is always a matter of having an interpretation and, secondly, to accept that there is a way of grasping a rule that is exhibited in calling particular uses either “obeying the rule” or “going against the rule”. I want to focus first on the second, positive, movement. As we noted, Wittgenstein does not respond to...

  17. 14. Truth-conditions versus use-conditions
    (pp. 231-250)

    Thus far we have argued that we should pursue the philosophy of language by attempting to construct a theory of meaning for a natural language. We have rejected radical interpretation as the stance to adopt in constructing such a theory and have instead recommended a modified robust approach. According to the latter, we shall be aiming to provide an informative account of the meanings of expressions in our own language. In other words, we are attempting to make the workings of our own language perspicuous to ourselves. Because we are constructing the account against the backdrop of our own facility...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 251-260)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-266)
  20. Index
    (pp. 267-272)