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Philosophical and linguistic interest in meaning




As has already been said, the study of meaning, semantics, brings in symbol using and symbol systems outside language; but the central place of language in human symbol systems makes language very much its primary concern. The problems arising from the study and analysis of meaning have been recognized and have received attention during the whole of man’s intellectual history. Much of the work involved has been undertaken by philosophers, especially logicians. […] The study of logic is closely connected with the study of language, however the relations between the two may be interpreted by successive generations of philosophers, since language is the vehicle of philosophical discourse and even the specially devised systems of modern symbolic logic are derived from and refer to particular types of sentence in natural languages. The logician is, however, primarily concerned with the inferential uses of language, the formal means by which statements or propositions may be reached or inferred as valid conclusions from preceding state­ments or propositions acting as premises. Much of Aristotelian logic is devoted to the different types of syllogisms, as sets of premises followed by conclusions are called, that may be used in valid chains of reasoning.

The concern of the linguist for the uses of language is much wider. Formalized logical inference and philosophical discourse in general are an important part of people’s use of language in several civilizations; but they are by no means the only, or indeed anything like the most frequent, uses. The linguist’s concern is with language in all its uses and manifestations as part of the processes of daily living and social interaction by members of groups, as well as in the specialized applications that form the provinces of philosophers and literary critics, and the approach to meaning on the part of the linguist must be based on this much wider range of language use and types of utterance.

Semantics can be recognized as a level of linguistic description and as a component of linguistics, but it is a much less tidily circumscribed field of study than are phonetics, phonology, and grammar, unless its range is so restricted as to exclude a great deal of what the plain man and the common reader would wish to include under the heading of meaning, with which semantics is concerned.

What one is really trying to do in semantics, or in making statements about meaning, is to explicate, to make explicit, the ways in which words, and sentences of various grammatical construc­tions, are used and understood by native or fluent speakers of a language. Sentences consist of words, but of words in specific grammatical relations within constructions, and words are used in speech (and in writing) as components of sentences. This applies equally to the so-called one-word sentences, in which a single word comprises a complete sentence. Nonetheless semantics can be considered from the point of view of word meaning and from that of sentence, or structural, meaning.


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