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Meaning involves linguistic and situational factors where the context of language use is essential
To see the distinction between semantic theoriesand foundational theories of meaning, it may help to consideran analogous one. Imagine an anthropologist specializing in tablemanners sent out to observe a distant tribe. One task theanthropologist clearly might undertake is to simply describe the tablemanners of that tribe—to describe the different categories intowhich members of the tribe place actions at the table, and to saywhich sorts of actions fall into which categories. This would beanalogous to the task of the philosopher of language interested insemantics; her job is say what different sorts of meanings expressionsof a given language have, and which expressions have whichmeanings.

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In the 1930s and 1940s Wittgenstein conducted seminars atCambridge, developing most of the ideas that he intended to publish inhis second book, Philosophical Investigations. These includedthe turn from formal logic to ordinary language, novel reflections onpsychology and mathematics, and a general skepticism concerningphilosophy’s pretensions. In 1945 he prepared the final manuscript ofthe Philosophical Investigations, but, at the last minute,withdrew it from publication (and only authorized its posthumouspublication). For a few more years he continued his philosophical work,but this is marked by a rich development of, rather than a turn awayfrom, his second phase. He traveled during this period to the UnitedStates and Ireland, and returned to Cambridge, where he was diagnosedwith cancer. Legend has it that, at his death in 1951, his last wordswere “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life” (Monk: 579).


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Before turning to discussion of these two sorts of theories, it isworth noting that one prominent tradition in the philosophy oflanguage denies that there are facts about the meanings of linguisticexpressions. (See, for example, Quine 1960 and Kripke 1982; forcritical discussion, see Soames 1997.) If this sort of skepticismabout meaning is correct, then there is neither a true semantic theorynor a true foundational theory of meaning to be found, since therelevant sort of facts simply are not around to be described oranalyzed. Discussion of these skeptical arguments is beyond the scopeof this entry, so in what follows I’ll simply assume that skepticismabout meaning is false.

Corresponding to these two questions are two different sorts of theoryof meaning. One sort of theory of meaning—a semantictheory—is a specification of the meanings of the words andsentences of some symbol system. Semantic theories thus answer thequestion, ‘What is the meaning of this or thatexpression?’ A distinct sort of theory—a foundationaltheory of meaning—tries to explain what about some personor group gives the symbols of their language the meanings that theyhave. To be sure, the shape of a correct semantic theory may placeconstraints on the correct foundational theory of meaning, or viceversa; but that does not change the fact that semantic theories andfoundational theories are simply different sorts of theories, designedto answer different questions.

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The task of explaining the main approaches to semantic theory incontemporary philosophy of language might seem to face an in-principlestumbling block. Given that no two languages have the samesemantics—no two languages are comprised of just the same words,with just the same meanings—it may seem hard to say how we cansay anything about different views about semantics in general, asopposed to views about the semantics of this or that language. Thisproblem has a relatively straightforward solution. While it is ofcourse correct that the semantics for English is one thing and thesemantics for French something else, most assume that the variousnatural languages should all have semantic theories of (in a sense tobe explained) the same form. The aim of what follows will,accordingly, be to introduce the reader to the main approaches tonatural language semantics—the main views about the right formfor a semantics for a natural language to take—rather than adetailed examination of the various views about the semantics of someparticular expression. (For some of the latter, see , , , and .)

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One caveat before we get started: before a semantic theorist sets offto explain the meanings of the expressions of some language, she needsa clear idea of what she is supposed to explain themeaning . This might not seem to present much of a problem;aren’t the bearers of meaning just the sentences of the relevantlanguage, and their parts? This is correct as far as it goes; but thetask of explaining what the semantically significant parts of asentence are, and how those parts combine to form the sentence, is anenterprise which is both far from trivial, and has importantconsequences for semantic theory. Indeed, most disputes about theright semantic treatment of some class of expressions are intertwinedwith questions about the syntactic form of sentences in which thoseexpressions figure. Unfortunately, discussion of theories of thissort, which attempt to explain the logical form, or syntax, of naturallanguage sentences, is well beyond the scope of this entry. As aresult, figures like Richard Montague, whose work on syntax and itsconnection to semantics has been central to the development ofsemantic theory over the past few decades, are passed over in whatfollows. (Montague’s essays are collected in Montague 1974; for adiscussion of the importance of his work, see §3.3 of Soames2010.)

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Most philosophers of language these days think that the meaning of anexpression is a certain sort of entity, and that the job of semanticsis to pair expressions with the entities which are their meanings. Forthese philosophers, the central question about the right form for asemantic theory concerns the nature of these entities. Because theentity corresponding to a sentence is called aproposition, I’ll call these propositional semantictheories. However, not all philosophers of language think thatthe meanings of sentences are propositions, or even believe that thereare such things. Accordingly, in what follows, I’ll divide the spaceof approaches to semantics into propositional and non-propositionalsemantic theories. Following discussion of the leading approaches totheories of each type, I’ll conclude in §2.3 by discussing a fewgeneral questions which semantic theorists take which are largelyorthogonal to one’s view about the form which a semantic theory oughtto take.