So let's talk about the meaning of "meaning." And so we are going to explore, for a little bit, what is called the theory of meaning. We are going to focus on linguistic meaning -- the meaning that words, sentences, and other items of language have, as well as the meaning that we human beings can have in using those items of language. Because "meaning" is, like most English words, highly ambiguous -- has lots of different senses. But when we ask what the meaning of "meaning" is, in the theory of meaning, we're asking about language or linguistic meaning.

The awful thing -- what makes the theory of meaning so difficult -- is that there are lots of different kinds linguistic meaning. So it's better to speak of the meanings, plural, of "meaning": the meanings of "meaning." Consider this example:

Suppose I'm at a party and I'm talking to a guy for a bit. His name is Jerry. It's a noisy party but I think I hear Jerry say that his name is "Barry," and that he's a bachelor. So now I incorrectly think this guy's name is Barry, and not Jerry. So then I move on and start talking to a single female friend. She points in the general direction of Jerry, and asks, "Who is that, and is he single?" I don't notice that she's actually pointing to some other guy, not Jerry. And the name of the guy that she is pointing to is, in fact, "Barry." But I think she's pointing to Jerry, and I think that Jerry's name is "Barry," and so I tell her, "Oh, Barry is a bachelor."

What is the meaning of "Barry is a bachelor."?

  • First, draw a distinction between what I mean, and what my words mean.
    • What do I mean when I say, "Barry is a bachelor"?
    • By contrast, what do my words, "Barry is a bachelor," mean in this situation?
    • There are two different things that have meaning, or that bear meaning: namely, speakers, and words.
  • So the distinction has been drawn, by the prominent contemporary American philosopher Saul Kripke, between speaker's meaning and semantic meaning.
    • The speaker's meaning is, roughly stated, what the speaker means by saying something; the semantic meaning is, roughly stated, what the words uttered by the speaker mean.
    • Sometimes we want to say that the speaker's meaning and the semantic meaning are different -- simply because we don't always say what we mean.
    • Sometimes we use words that do not actually express what we want to express; so our words mean one thing, and what we mean by them is another thing.

To use the Barry/Jerry example: when I say "Barry is a bachelor," what I mean, what I intend to say is, roughly paraphrased, that the man I met is a bachelor. But what my words mean is that the man my female friend is pointing to, a man whose name really is "Barry," is a bachelor. The speaker's meaning here is about one person, while the semantic meaning is about a different person. Usually they match up, but sometimes they don't.

Here's another example where speaker's meaning and semantic meaning don't match up.

Suppose I'm out stargazing, just after sunset. So the stars are just starting to come out. So I mention something about "the brightest star in the sky" to a friend. Now it so happens that at that moment, the brightest star in the sky is the star called "Vega." So my words, "the brightest star in the sky," refer to the star Vega. But what I mean is actually a brighter celestial object, namely the planet Venus. I just don't realize at that time that that object is a planet, not a star. So what I mean by "the brightest star in the sky" is Venus, whereas what my words mean is Vega. The speaker's meaning differs from the semantic meaning in that case.

So that's one complication that a theory of meaning has to deal with: different kinds of meaning-bearers. When we ask, "What is the meaning of 'meaning??" then you can now come back and ask, cleverly, "Do you mean the meaning of 'speaker's meaning? or the meaning of 'semantic meaning??"

Another complication are the semantic meaning-bearers -- you know, words, phrases, sentences, and so forth. As mentioned, we can speak of individual words, all by themselves, such as the word "bachelor," having meaning; we can speak of various kinds of phrases, such as "the brightest star in the sky," and "is larger than"; we can speak of the meaning of whole sentences, such as "Barry is a bachelor." The meaning of a whole sentence is clearly a different critter from the meaning of an individual word.

And then among words and phrases we can distinguish different parts of speech, such as noun phrases and adjectival phrases, and of course those are going to have different kinds of meaning. And clearly proper names, which are names that stand for individuals, like "Jerry" and "Barry," and "Paris," and "Venus," are going to have yet another kind of meaning.

See also Gottlob Frege, John Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein