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How are we able to use language to communicate knowledge? Locke’s question, introduced in section 1, was recast as the obligation to spell out what ‘meaning’ amounts to as it figures within a simple theory of communication, repeated here:
The simple theory of communication
The successful communication of knowledge about the world is possible because speakers are able to produce utterances with a specific meaning, and recognition of that meaning by an audience enables them to appreciate what the speaker intends to communicate.
This theory is, we saw, only genuinely explanatory if we can supplement it with a non-vacuous statement of what it is for an utterance to have the meaning it does. Our task in this section will be to explore ways of doing this.
There are two different and potentially incompatible approaches to carrying out this task, distinguished according to what they take as the source of an utterance’s meaning. According to one view, the source is the meaning of the expressions uttered according to the language to which they belong. If a speaker utters the sentence, ‘The German economy is bouncing back’, what the utterance means is that the German economy is bouncing back. On this first view, it means this because that is what these words mean in English. If the speaker had unusual ideas about what the words ‘German’ and ‘economy’ mean – for example, that they mean what we ordinarily mean by ‘folding’ and ‘bed’ respectively – this would not (on this first view) change the meaning of the utterance. The speaker would still have said that the German economy is bouncing back, not that the folding bed is bouncing back.
Many find this thought intuitively appealing. To others, it seems unnecessarily prescriptive. Why, they ask, can we not use language in ways of our own choosing? If someone wants to use ‘jealous of’ to mean envious of rather than possessive of (its traditional or ‘proper’ meaning), then why shouldn’t they? This second view treats the speaker’s mental states as the source of the meaning of the utterances they produce. Supporters of the first view often respond to the liberal, speaker-centred perspective by pointing to the disastrous consequences of treating the actual speaker rather than the words the speaker uses as the arbiter of an utterance’s meaning. They are fond of alluding to Humpty Dumpty (as he figures in Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the looking-glass rather than as he figures in the nursery rhyme) to make their point. Below is a passage from the book in which Humpty proclaims his right to mean whatever he wishes by the words he uses.
…‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’…”