Whence Meaning

Words don’t have any ‘innate meaning’, all meaning is given to words by us.

Hm, maybe. When we use a word, it’s not so much the word, the utterance, itself that we’re concerned with but with that to which the word refers, right? To paraphrase Russell, when I say that the sun is shining, I don’t mean that this sentence is logically tight or has no contradictions, but I mean that there is a thing, called the sun, which is shining.

Well, yeah. The actual word doesn’t matter, it’s just a sound we’ve attached meaning to. It stands for something else.

Right, so could we then say that a word has meaning because it refers to something beyond itself?

Yes.

Okay. So the actual sound, the actual utterance itself, is more or less beside the point. So a word has meaning if it refers to something – this seems to necessarily be the case. So a necessary condition for meaning is something beyond the word, right?

Right.

Okay, so then meaning isn’t given to a word by us, but by that to which it refers?

Hold on. Words aren’t eternal and changeless, they evolve – there isn’t a one-to-one language in existence. The words are arbitrary. Cat could have been anything – spaghetti, had the population at large so agreed on it. So no, meaning comes from us – we assign a word to stand for a thing.

Hm. It seems that this isn’t an either-or issue. Words have to refer to something, and we have to assign a word to stand for a thing.

Exactly. So we’re both right.

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