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Sentences, Propositions and Linguistic Meaning (Part 3)

by Brian Bosse, Copyright June 15, 2010, all rights reserved.

Having introduced the distinction called ‘linguistic meaning’ I now turn to a critique of it.  Linguistic meaning is the meaning of a sentence that allows one to translate it into another language so as to able to say that this translation has the same meaning as the original sentence.  We looked at the following example…

(1) Mary loves Carl.
(2) Maria ama Carlos

It would not be unusual to hear someone say that (2) is a translation of (1) into Spanish, and in this sense (1) and (2) have the same meaning.  However, there is a problem with this.  Consider the following sentence…

(3) Maria quiere Carlos.

This sentence is a legitimate translation of (1), and in some cases would be a more appropriate translation of (1) than (2).  So, one could say that (1) and (2) have the same linguistic meaning, and (1) and (3) have the same linguistic meaning.  But the problem is that (2) and (3) do not have the same linguistic meaning because the verb ‘amar’ and the verb ‘querer’ have very different meanings.  As such, this undermines the very distinction called ‘linguistic meaning’.  The reason for this is that most often words have many different meanings, and can be used in different ways.  This range of meaning within usage is called ‘semantic range’.  Because the English word ‘love’ has a different semantic range than the Spanish words ‘amar’ and ‘quiere,’ one is not able to say that (1) means the exact same thing as (2) or (3) apart from the context.  As such, the occasion of use is required - but this is an appeal to propositional meaning of a sentence which destroys the distinction between linguistic meaning and propositional meaning.     

In the end, this entity called ‘linguistic meaning’ is very elusive. The differing grammatical structures between languages and the differing semantic ranges of the lexis between languages leads me to suspect that such a distinction is a chimera.

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Sentences, Propositions and Linguistic Meaning (Part 2)

by Brian Bosse, Copyright June 14, 2010, all rights reserved.

In the last entry we described and illustrated the distinction between a sentence and a proposition.  There is yet another distinction that is made called ‘linguistic meaning’.  Linguistic is meaning said to be different from a proposition, and does not carry truth-value. One philosopher presented the following illustration on his blog here.  He says…

Suppose a Spanish speaker learning English learns that ‘Mary loves Carl’ means the same as ‘Mary ama Carl.’ The Spanish speaker then fully understands the linguistic meaning of ‘Mary loves Carl’ but without needing to know any proposition, any truth or falsehood, that the English sentence has ever expressed. (See Castaneda, Thinking and Doing, p. 35) Therefore, the linguistic meaning of a declarative sentence is distinct from the proposition expressed by the sentence on some occasion of the sentence’s use.

The distinction being spoken of here recognizes that there is a type of meaning that allows one to translate a sentence in one language into a sentence into another language without considering propositional meaning.  (Propositional meaning is the type of meaning that comes from the context within which the sentence is used.)  As such, one can look at the English sentence ‘Mary loves Carl’ and without knowing any context and say that ‘Mary ama Carl’ has the same linguistic meaning.  This illustrates a different kind of meaning than propositional meaning.  Also, it is not the type of meaning that we can say is true or false because it is independent of context.  We do not know who Mary and Carl are, and more importantly, we do not know if Mary does in fact love Carl.  But we can say that in some sense ‘Mary ama Carl’ means the same thing as ‘Mary loves Carl’.  This seems to establish this new distinction called ‘linguistic meaning’. Or does it?  In the next entry I will argue why I do not think this distinction has been established.

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Sentences, Propositions and Linguistic Meaning (Part 1)

by Brian Bosse, Copyright June 12, 2010, all rights reserved.

There is an important distinction between declarative sentences and propositions.  A proposition is simply the meaning of a sentence.  So, the distinction between a proposition and a sentence is really the distinction between the sentence and its meaning.  That there is a distinction between the meaning of a sentence and the sentence itself is easily illustrated. Consider the following three different sentences:

(1) God is good.
(2) Dios es beuno.
(3) O θεος αγαθος εστιν.

Sentence (2) is a Spanish translation of sentence (1), and sentence (3) is a Greek translation of sentence (1).  As such, it is possible for all three of these different sentences to express the same meaning, i.e., they can express the same proposition. Now, consider these two sentences…

(4) You are bad!
(5) You are bad!

Even though these are the same sentences, depending on how they are used they could carry very different meanings.  For example, (4) may be a comment on someone’s morality; whereas, (5) could be a comment on someone’s lack of ability in some area.  In the right context, (5) could even mean the opposite of a lack of ability.  It could be a comment on someone’s prodigious ability.  For example, after a very impressive basketball game by Jones, someone might say, “Jones, you are one bad basketball player!”  As such, this distinction between a sentence and its proposition is a good distinction - if not an obvious one.

An interesting consequence of this is that sentences do not carry a truth-value.  That is to say, that technically, it is improper to say that a sentence is true or false.  Only propositions carry truth-value.  So, saying something like, “The proposition expressed by sentence (1) is true,” is to use truth-value in its proper context; whereas, to say, “Sentence (1) is true,” would be technically improper.   

There are some philosophers (not all!) that see another distinction they call ‘linguistic meaning’ that is different from both propositions and sentences.  My next post will explore this distinction.

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