A1: "The Metaphysics of Meaning" (Gottfried Vosgerau)

Mon 11.15-12.45, Tue 14.15-15.45, Wed 16.15-17.45, Fri 9.15-10.45
Room: 1.13


One of the most central questions of philosophy of language is the question what kind of entity the meanings of linguistic expressions are. Traditionally, we find two contradicting answers: Either, meanings are construed as abstract, objective entities, or as concrete mental particulars.

The first view implies that for each language there is a set of meanings, which is independent of the use of linguistic expressions or the language users. The most prominent example for such a view is truth-conditional semantics. However, such views have the notorious difficulty to explain how single language users can have access to meanings. The other view states that language is used to express the mental states of a language user and that meanings are thus mental particulars that exist only in the mind of each single language user. This view implies that for each language user, there is a set of meanings. Such views have major difficulties in explaining how two different language users can understand each other, since both have very different sets of meanings available. Certain forms of use-based theories, namely those that claim that the meaning of a linguistic expression is its actual use (which differs from language user to language user), are examples of such theories; other examples include psychological theories such as prototype theory.

Especially in the structuralist tradition in linguistics, language has been treated as a system which underlies actual language use and is relatively independent from both language use and users. Accordingly, the traditional metaphysical assumption in linguistics is that meanings are objective, abstract entities. However, in recent decades several attempts have been made to make semantics more “cognitive”, i.e. to systematically take into account the cognitive apparatus of language users. Although this hints at a shift in the metaphysical assumptions, it is not clear how these attempts solve the problems of abstract, objective meanings. This means that an explanation of how the different individual meanings relate to each other to make communication possible is often not in sight.

The course will introduce the basic ideas of both traditional views on the metaphysics of meaning. We will then discuss to what extent recent cognitively inspired semantics involves a shift in the metaphysical assumptions and what implications such a shift would have. Especially, we will discuss how such a shift might help to answer the classical problem of explaining the individual access to meanings and how it might at the same time create a new problem of explaining successful communication. Based on the results of this discussion, we will try to develop a catalogue of desiderata for a future metaphysics of meaning that is able to connect the individual level of understanding language and the public level of language systems.

The desiderata will be such that we need comprehensive descriptions of both individuals’ mental representations and the public meanings of linguistic expressions. Both descriptions have to be mapped onto each other systematically. One theory that has been suggested to provide such descriptions is the Düsseldorf Frame Theory which will be introduced and discussed in detail at the end of the course.

Lecturer: Gottfried Vosgerau, Universität Düsseldorf