The Elements Of Meaning

C. H. Whiteleya1

a1 University of Birmingham.


I Take ‘meaning’ and ‘understanding’ as correlative terms: to say of words or other symbols that they have meaning is to say that they are understood, or could be understood, by some interpreter. To specify a meaning fully, one must specify the interpreter or class of interpreters who do or might understand the symbols in a given way. There aretwo ways of doing this for a given utterance of words: we can take the interpretation which the utterer intended (‘meant’) the words to receive, or the interpretation which would be given to them by the majority of speakers of the language to which they belong (or a specially qualified group of such speakers). In the vast majority of cases these interpretationswill coincide; in a small minority of cases they will not. Sometimes a speaker will coin a new word, or use an old word in a new sense. Sometimes he will ignorantly or carelessly intend his words to be interpreted in a way inwhich they would not be interpreted by most understanders of his language. In cases of this kind, we have to distinguish between ‘what the words mean’ and ‘what he meant by the words’. (English judges, in interpreting statutes, are supposed to consider only the former, ignoring the latter; but usually it is rather the latter which matters.) Normally,however, an utterer of words uses them with meanings already determined independently of his use of them (though not, of course, independently of the totality of uses of them).