welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Philosophy and Language

How To Understand Words

Robert Horner tells us how, and then gives a linguistic philosopher’s view of the meaning of ‘the right to bear arms’.

Speakers utter words which hearers interpret. This, in the most fundamental way, is how we think language works. Communication has taken place successfully when the hearer interprets the speaker’s words (her meaning) correctly. Ah, but there’s the rub. What constitutes ‘correctly’? And that is where a theory of language gets complicated. What must we take into account in order to correctly interpret another’s language? Context? Surely. A speaker’s intentions? Surely, also. What about what is thought of as the ‘conventional’ or ‘standard’ meaning of words? To some very considerable extent, taking account of this is also highly useful (although not essential). Most certainly, though, all these factors are involved in interpreting a speaker’s words correctly.

This may seem complicated enough, but, in addition, each of these considerations individually brings its own difficulty. For example, the context of an utterance is crucial for how that utterance is to be interpreted. However, we must understand ‘context’ to include both the linguistic context – the particular phrase within which a given word is used, as well as the larger conversational or literary context within which the phrases are themselves embedded – and the non-linguistic context – the ‘world-situation’ or external environment in which the utterance is uttered.

Moreover, can’t two people experience a particular event simultaneously, but interpret it differently? Think for example of differences in eyewitness accounts of an event even when the perspective of the observers is virtually identical. Interpreting a speaker’s intentions presents similar difficulties, especially when the speaker and hearer’s understanding or knowledge of the subject matter diverges. One reason is that it is often the case that we use a speaker’s utterances to divine their intentions, but must often simultaneously also use their assumed intentions to interpret the meaning of their utterances in the first place.

american militia drawing
Americans bearing arms two centuries ago

Part of the difficulty in communication comes from the fact that a speaker cannot intend to mean something by what he says unless he believes his hearer will interpret his words as he intends them to interpreted (otherwise he has no intention of communicating at all). So when using his words, a speaker must take into account how he expects his hearer will interpret them. This is why no abstract theory of interpretation (for example, one based solely on the conventional meanings of words) can alone entirely account for what a speaker may mean on a particular occasion – because expectations of the moment, on both the speaker’s part and the hearer’s part, always play a role in the correct interpretation of the meaning of a speaker’s words.

The idea that conventions explain linguistic communication is based on the idea that if you know what conventions are particular to a language, acoustically, grammatically, etc., how these conventions are used, and are able conform to them, then you know how to speak that language. But although the regularity of use presupposed by a conventional account of meaning is obviously an important feature of a language, it is ultimately not a necessary condition for successful linguistic communication, since malapropisms and other non-standard expressions – where the utterance is neological, analogical, incomplete, grammatically garbled or incongruous with the context in which it is uttered – can still often be understood. (An example of a neologism or ‘newly-coined word’ would be when Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory says “Bazinga!”) It follows that we cannot reduce linguistic meaning to conventional meaning.

This also demonstrates something else important regarding the shared meanings that we think speakers of the same language have in common. Meanings are shared to the extent that speakers and hearers have shared expectations of the way in which their words apply to objects or events in the world. We thus have not a dyadic (2-way) account of meanings, as simply shared between speaker and hearer, but a triadic (3-way) account that makes clear the importance of context in making meaning possible. Any distinction between what a speaker means and what his words conventionally mean depends importantly on the way in which the speaker’s intentions triangulate with the context and the linguistic expectations of the hearer. In fact, without a shared world to which words apply, the notion of ‘meaning’ is impossible, as we’ll see.

Speaker Meaning and Linguistic Meaning

Let’s make a further distinction, between linguistic meaning and speaker meaning. The speaker meaning is obviously what the speaker intends to communicate. But only when speaker and hearer agree as to the meaning of a speaker’s utterance does linguistic meaning come to be. There is a famous example from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland that illustrates this distinction well. Let me quote this exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Dumpty says to Alice, “There’s glory for you,” intending his meaning (his speaker meaning) to be ‘There’s a nice knock-down argument for you’. Alice responds, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’.” Humpty rejoins, “Of course you don’t – ‘til I tell you.” This exchange illustrates the necessity of mutually-understood intentions on the part of speaker and hearer for the success of communication, and that an interpreter of another’s words can only be said to understand that speaker when he has interpreted those words as the speaker intended his words to be interpreted. Yet it should be noted that the same words, uttered in the same context, by the same speaker, to two different hearers present at the same time, may be interpreted by two hearers differently; perhaps correctly by one, but not by the other. Linguistic meaning is thus constituted by the success of a communicative act. However, this entails that there is no such thing as an ultimate, objective criterion for the correctness of a successful communicative act, and that the act is not objective, but intersubjective – it depends on the relationship between the speaker and the hearer. This means that signs, such as words, cannot mean anything in themselves. It is only the intentions of speakers in their use of signs, and the ability of hearers to interpret them in meaningful ways, that confers meanings on them.

But it is not express agreement – explicitly agreed-to conventions learned in advance – on which the possibility of sharing meaning ultimately depends. Rather, it is our shared expectations as these are derived from our shared (but innate) modes of human experience, and ultimately our shared forms of life, that constitute the basis for the possibility of shared meanings among speakers. So meanings are ultimately grounded on our shared but pre-linguistic, i.e. unlearned, ways of experiencing the world, and on the common expectations to which these modes of experience give rise: we just do find objects and events similar, and to the extent that we can use signs to refer to such objects and events, we can therefore share expectations of meaning as well.

This is why it is often very difficult to explain to someone a form of experience that they have never experienced. Could a sighted person adequately communicate their experience of the blueness of the sky to a blind person? For a similar reason, this is why we often resort to an analogy expected to be familiar to a hearer in order to attempt to explain smells and tastes – for example, of the smell of sulfur, “Oh, this smells like rotten eggs.” Perhaps the adventurer Felix Baumgartner would have a similar difficulty trying to explain his recent experience of leaping from a balloon in near outer space.

Speaker, Hearer, and World

A sophisticated and accurate theory of interpretation (essentially, a theory of meaning) must take context into account in a fundamental way. To repeat, such a theory views communication as a three-part (triadic) act between a speaker, a hearer, and the world. How both mental content, and therefore the content of sentences, come to have meaning depends on the interactive, interdependent activity of creatures with other creatures, and on how they simultaneously interact with the world.

This is also true of how we learn a language. Imagine that two people who do not speak each other’s language (or who do not have a language at all) are confined in a space in which they were unable to share four out of the five types of sensory stimuli (think something like Plato’s Cave without the fire, if you like): no shared visual stimuli because it is utterly dark; no shared tactile stimuli because they are not allowed to touch each other, nor to have objects in common to touch; no shared smells or tastes. The only shared stimulus is that of sound – they may hear each other. Could these two people ever learn to communicate, even in the most rudimentary way?

Certainly not; for what would they have to talk about? Any word spoken by one would have no more meaning for the other than a grunt. (This comparison is cheating, to an extent, because even a grunt could have an interpretation and thus a possible meaning – ‘displeasure’, for example.) David Eagleman, writing in a recent New York Times op-ed, gives the flavor of the point I’m making when he analogously says: “Imagine you were an alien catching sight of the Earth. Your species knows nothing about humans, let alone how to interpret the interactions of seven billion people in complex social networks. With no acquaintance with the nuances of human language or behavior, it proves impossible to decipher the secret idiom of neighborhoods and governments, the interplay of local and global culture, or the intertwining economies of nations. It just looks like pandemonium, a meaningless Babel.”(NYT, 22nd Feb 2013).

The point is that the basis for communication lies in a speaker’s and hearer’s abilities to correlate their responses to objects and events in the world. So it is two people reacting to stimuli in the world and reacting to each other’s reactions to these stimuli that completes the communication triangle, by locating the common stimulus that makes communication possible – however tacit, unconscious, or cognitively imperceptible such a coordination of stimuli, responses and conditioning may be. Please note though that one cannot reduce meanings and beliefs (insofar as the latter are involved in communication) to the vocabulary of stimuli, responses and conditioning.

‘The Right To Bear Arms’

As previously pointed out, there is no unequivocal agreement even among ourselves about the meanings of words; so the notion that there exists some sort of objective, eternal ‘agreement’ in regard to the ‘facts’ of a language is untenable.

minute man statue
Eternal vigilance required

So now let me make my target point: ‘The right to bear arms’ did not mean for our Founding Fathers what it may mean, or could even possibly mean, to us today.

Why not?

Well, as I discussed, what is presupposed for the sharing of meaning is the existence of shared expectations, and to some extent that requires a shared mode of life. So we cannot have the ‘shared expectations’ with our forefathers that they could have had with each other. More specifically, without us (I mean, those of us alive today and the Founding Fathers) sharing the stimuli from a shared world, we cannot interpret for ourselves their words as applying in the way that they applied them. Specifically in regard to the phrase ‘the right to bear arms’, the Founding Fathers had only the stimuli of muzzle-loading muskets, pistols, swords, and cannon. You may say, “Yes, but if they were alive today, they would share our interpretation of these words as based on our sensory stimuli.” But that is a specious argument to make, either by proponents of gun control or of gun rights, since the Founding Fathers are not alive today.

As I argued, without shared stimuli communication is impossible, and so to the extent that sharing stimuli across generations is impossible, communication across generations is always inherently and fundamentally open to misinterpretation. (Consider that in both his Rhetoric and Poetics Aristotle cites examples of metaphor, yet no one alive today knows how they were metaphors for the ancient Greeks.) To the limited extent to which subsequent generations have access to similar stimuli as earlier people, they can claim to have similar expectations of meaning as the earlier generation, and thus to understand their meanings. But we cannot claim that a later generation has the same understanding as an earlier one if the earlier generation lacked the stimuli inspiring the later peoples’ knowledge. Rather, an earlier generation’s words can only have meaning to a subsequent generation insofar as those words are reinterpreted vis-a-vis the experiences of the new generation.

The difficulty of translation of speech across generations is analogous to the difficulty of the comparison of monetary values across generations. There is no direct translation, of say, year 1800 dollars into year 2014 dollars, because such computations must be based on the goods and services that could be bought with a dollar in 1800 versus what a dollar might buy today; and these goods and services are in a great many cases and to some considerable extent dissimilar, and therefore the values are to the same considerable extent incomparable.

By the same reasoning, a strict application of the original meaning of the Constitution to the United States of today is impossible insofar as it is based on an interpretation for which the Founding Fathers lacked the relevant stimuli (in the case of the 2nd Amendment, for example, assault weapons or atomic bombs). There are no ‘eternal meanings’, because linguistic interpretation must always take into account the context, and therefore the particular occasion, in which particular words are, or were, uttered, not merely the putative intentions of the speaker in terms of how we interpret what those intentions would be today, based on today’s expectations. That is to say, an ‘originalist’ reading of the meaning of the phrase ‘the right to bear arms’ may very well be possible, to the extent that we understand the intentions and the context within which the phrase was formulated; but such a reading has only a partial relevance to an application of the same phrase today. Such a reading is restricted to what words meant at the time they were uttered (at least insofar as we can know this). The same words do not mean the same thing today.

In the same way, succeeding generations can try to reinterpret the language of previous generations as it may have meaning for us today, or in their own terms; but the two meanings will, often and importantly, be different.

© Dr Robert Horner 2014

Dr Horner’s dissertation was on Donald Davidson’s philosophy of language, and he considers himself a ‘Davidsonian’. He’s a former student of Susan Haack, and was Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X