"The Gricean line of explanation [of meaning] is hence essentially no more than a sophisticated version of the code conception of language" (Dummett) Discuss. 


The quote in the essay title is from Michael Dummet's essay "Language and Communication"(1) which is reprinted as Chapter 7 of his The Seas of Language(2).  He has on several other occasions voiced his argument against the code conception of language(3).

The code conception of language is an approach to a theory of meaning for linguistic expressions that explains the meaningfulness of those expressions by referring to some non-linguistic phenomena.  These phenomena are usually considered to be thoughts, or ideas, or intentions, or concepts, or something of the sort.  As such, linguistic expressions gain their meaning by being associated by a speaker with some kind of mental phenomena.  Hence, the code conception of language makes linguistic meaning, at its foundation, something private instead of public. 

In the cited case of a Gricean theory of meaning, the private mental phenomena that give meaning to linguistic expressions are the intentions of the speaker.  As Grice first laid out in his "Meaning" article in 1957(4), a "Gricean line of explanation of meaning" starts with the concept of "speaker's-meaning".  In this approach, a speaker's utterance has meaning according to the intention of the speaker -- what the speaker intends to communicate to the audience.  The theory then uses this concept of "speaker's-meaning" to generate "sentence-meaning" -- making sentence meaning depend on the "standard" speaker's intentions in employing the words in the sentence.  In later versions of a Gricean theory, sentence meanings are built recursively out of basic meanings associated with sub-sentential parts.  A word (or a phrase) has a "standard (conventional(5)) meaning" if, within a given language community, it is conventionally expected that when a speaker uses this particular word (or phrase), his intention is to communicate the conventionally associated meaning.(6)

Of course, this goes against the currently popular idea (endorsed by Dummett) that one of the constraints on an acceptable theory of meaning is what is called the manifestability of meaning, sometimes also called the principle of publicity(7).  Dummett's opposition to the code conception of language amounts to rejecting the view that the function of language is to express such private things as thoughts.  The code conception of language, in his view, would represent communication as being ultimately based on hypotheses about which private and inaccessible thought a speaker associates with an expression (a sentence of her language).  The "fundamental axiom" that Dummett ascribes to analytical philosophy is the idea that thought can only be studied by focusing on language(8).

The manifestability of meaning thesis asserts that the meaning of any linguistic expression must in principle be empirically observable, must be in principle be open to objective (inter-subjective) determination.  In the words of Donald Davidson, the fact that meanings are decipherable in this way "is not a matter of luck; public availability is a constitutive aspect of language."(9)

The point of the manifestability thesis that the internal states of speakers, such as private mental states, cannot -- ex hypothesi -- be what linguistic meaning is grounded upon.  Otherwise communication would be based on inferences about unobservable associations of linguistic expressions with language-independent contents (mental phenomena).  Any such association could not be checked by the language community.  As Wittgenstein pointed out with his private language argument(10), there would be no objective standard of correctness of such associations.

The manifestability thesis is not equivalent to behaviorism.  Generally speaking, meaning-theoretic behaviorism is the approach to meaning that draws upon purely behavioral evidence.  Mentalistic or intentional idiom is precluded in this approach.  It thus sees meaning in purely physicalistic terms.  As is well known, Quine considers his view of meaning behavioristic(11).  Dummett accepts the manifestability thesis without adopting behaviorism by allowing the interpreter to attribute reasons, motives, and intentions to the speaker.

"[I]t is essential both to our use of language and to any faithful account of the phenomenon of human language that it is a rational activity, and that we ascribe motives and intentions to speakers. This estimation of speakers' intentions is not, of itself, peculiar to the particular language, or even to language as such: it proceeds according to the ordinary means we have for estimating the intentions underlying peoples' actions, non-linguistic as well as linguistic."(12)

Hence, his objection to the Gricean approach is that it bases linguistic meaning on what he considers an unobservable realm of speakers' intentions.  The intentions behind linguistic communications are just not sufficiently manifestable for Dummett.

Another central idea employed by Dummett in his critique of the code conception of language is that to Dummett the sentence, rather than the word, is the semantically fundamental linguistic unit.  This idea is known as the contextuality of meaning.  The doctrine of the semantic primacy of the sentence is often called "contextualism" (as for example by Baker and Hacker(13) and Glock(14)) or "statement holism" (by Fodor and LePore(15)).  The thesis is often supported by a famous citation from Frege's Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik: "Only in the context of a sentence do words have any meaning"(16).

The contextuality thesis stipulates that the meaning of a word or phrase derives only from its systematic contribution to the meanings of the sentences it appears in.  There simply is nothing to connect uses of sub-sentential parts to pieces of non-linguistic reality except within a theory whose base is the use of sentences.  Here is Davidson on the matter:

"[…] it seems clear that the semantic features of words cannot be explained directly on the basis of non-linguistic phenomena. The reason is simple. The phenomena to which we must turn are the extra-linguistic interests and activities that language serves, and these are served by words only in so far as the words are incorporated in (or on occasion happen to be) sentences. But then there is no chance of giving a foundational account of words before giving one of sentences."(17)

The two theses of contextuality and manifestibility are closely interrelated.  Linguistic meaning must be connected with manifestable attributes of speech acts.  But you cannot do anything (perform a speech act) with a mere word (or phrase).  Therefore, the sentence must be the semantically more fundamental unit.  Dummett sees the thesis of contextuality as a basic principle of analytical philosophy, alongside the principle that the study of thought is possible only through the study of language.  He thinks that this is a matter of "conceptual dependence" of word-meaning on sentence-meaning.   According to Dummett, this conceptual dependence is "evident" only to those who have studied the theory of meaning after Frege(18).  

Combining the manifestability thesis (that meaning must be publicly manifested), with the thesis that theories (in this case the assignment of meanings to sentences) are always underdetermined by the evidence (in this case the empirically manifested evidence), and with the contextuality thesis (that meaning attaches primarily to sentences and not words) results in a doctrine about the indeterminacy of the meaning of sub-sentential parts.  This doctrine is also known as the inscrutability of reference.  (It is important to distinguish the inscrutability thesis from Quine's thesis of the indeterminacy of translation(19).  The latter concerns an indeterminacy in sentence-meaning.  The inscrutability of reference concerns the meaning of the words in sentences.)

Dummett, along with most other advocates of truth-conditional semantics, considers that the so-called "proxy function argument" first developed by Quine(20), is a conclusive proof of the inscrutability thesis.  Roughly, the proxy function argument is that sub-sentential parts of sentences can be reinterpreted so that, for example, the word "London" can come to refer to Mount Everest, as long as other parts of the language are suitably reinterpreted as well.  Such reinterpretations on the "theoretical" semantic level, it is argued, do not affect the semantic contents assigned to sentences(21).

Thus it can be seen that Dummett's disapproval of the Gricean approach to a theory of meaning stems from his prior commitment to the manifestibility thesis.  And his disapproval of the code conception of language stems from his prior commitment to the contextuality thesis.  His equation of the Gricean approach to linguistic meaning with a code conception of language stems, therefore, from his idea that if the meaning of a sentence is determined by the private intentions of the speaker, the actual sentences uttered must be interpreted as just a code designating those intentions. 

But, however cast in concrete Dummett's arguments may seem against the code conception of language, and the Gricean approach to linguistic meaning based on speaker's intentions, there is available a counter argument from within Dummett's own writings. 

Dummett draws a distinction between thought proper, which is always expressible in language (and whose "vehicle" language is), and proto-thought, which occurs in non-linguistic animals and infants, as well as in language-mastering adult humans(22).  According to his description, proto-thought is not just an underdeveloped form of perception that ceases to figure in our cognitive capacities once propositional thought and language have arisen(23).  There are forms of spatial thought, for example, that are clearly non-linguistic and which Dummett describes as "visual imagination superimposed on the visually perceived scene".  And this kind of proto-thought involves the perception of objects as distinct units.  In other words, as Dummett admits, on the level of proto-thought, we perceive determinate objects - in the sense that there is no radical indeterminacy analogous to inscrutability of reference as to which objects we are dealing with.  In proto-thought, it seems, we have a world where there is a fully determinate distinction between a perceived object and its (proxy argument) proxy, because the object can be reached in a non-propositional manner.  There is a distinction for us, at the level of proto-thought, between London and Mount Everest.  It seems that the inscrutability of reference cannot touch proto-thought.  So what becomes really interesting now, is the relation between proto-thought and language.

A proto-thought level of perception remains essentially private, incommunicable, and thus also inaccessible to thought proper.  This apparent split between the incommunicable aspects of proto-thought, where there is determinacy about the furniture of the world, and the communicable thought-proper, is suspicious.  A central feature of the perceived world remains private, incommunicable.  Karen Green comments on this difference between proto-thought and thought proper:

"[A]s Dummett points out, there is much spatial thought which is not linguistic, and many properties which we unerringly respond to […] but could not adequately characterize in language. It is therefore not so much that we cannot perceive the world except through the categories of language, as that we cannot communicate or make public what we perceive except through such categories."(24)

In the philosophical literature, the most famous critique of a truth-conditional approach to linguistic meaning has been by John Searle.  Searle has argued that the inscrutability consequence of the manifestibility and contextuality theses represent a reductio ad absurdum proof of the invalidity of such theories, rather than an unintuitive but accceptable consequence of a legitimate theory(25).  His critique is directed at the third person prejudice involved in the manifestability thesis.  He argues that all semantically relevant facts need not be available to both speaker and audience.  He suggests that where an interpreter cannot make a determinate choice between alternatives on the basis of public, empirical evidence, there is no distinction to be made.  But because of the interactive and on-going nature of linguistic intercourse, that does not necessarily hinder communication.  He argues that is wrong to restrict a theory of meaning to a third person point of view, because it "denies the existence of distinctions that we know from our own case are valid"(26) and are "known independently to be valid"(27).  Contrary to Davidson and Dummett, Searle argues that there are semantically relevant facts that are not manifestable in the third person sense.  In this, he agrees with the Gricean approach.

If in fact the inscrutability conclusion is unacceptable, as Searle suggests, then the only alternative is to modify the premises that lead there.  As far as the manifestibility thesis is concerned, Dummett already relaxes the requirement beyond the strictly empirical behaviorism of Quine.  He is ready to admit that thoughts and reasons can be attributed to a speaker by the interpreter.  Is it really so problematic to include in the category of manifestable evidence the conventional meaning of sub-sentential parts, or the responses that the speaker might provide when questioned about his intentions, concepts, and the rest of that sort of mentalistic stuff?  Certainly, this sort of evidence may not be available when considering a sentence divorced from any occasion of utterance.  But if such conversational evidence can be considered as part of the manifestability of meaning, then the Gricean approach to an intention-based theory of meaning starts to become less objectionable.

But the key to making a code-conception of language more than just a "non-starter," is to get rid of the contextuality thesis.  This thesis is deemed necessary for all truth-conditional approaches to meaning because truth-conditions (whether couched in terms of "verification", "truth" or "assertability") are unintelligible unless framed as complete propositions.  But the alternative is to view sentences (and propositions) as made up of series of discrete concepts.  This meshes nicely with the way that we all learn new words in our own language, or in another language.  We learn new language elements either ostensibly (these rough looking rocks here we call "painite") or by using other words in a description (as in the dictionary definition of "kainotophobia" as a fear of change).  So as long as the speaker (S) builds the utterance (x) using words or phrases that the audience (A) is familiar with, there will be little opportunity for a significant disconnect between speaker's-meaning and audience-meaning -- even if the speakers intentions are not immediately manifest. 

A much maligned approach in this day and age, the Conceptualist approach looks at words as "code groups" signifying particular concepts.  A sentence is an organized sequence of concepts -- organized by the conventional rules of grammar.  Although nothing more than a two sentence outline of a project, thist does constitute an alternative to the meaning-theoretic premises that cause Dummett to denigrate both the code conception of language, and the Gricean line of explanation of meaning.


Notes & References

(1)  Dummett, Michael;  "Language and Communication" in Reflections on Chomsky, Alexander George (ed.), Basil Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, England, 1989.

(2)  Dummett, Michael;  The Seas of Language, Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. 1993. Pg 172.

(3)  Dummett, Michael;  "What do I Know when I Know a Language?" reprinted as Chapter 3 in The Seas of Language. pp. 95--105/

"Truth and Meaning" reprinted as Chapter 6 in The Seas of Language, pp. 147--166.

Origins of Analytical Philosophy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1998, pp. 132--134]

(4)  Grice, H. Paul; "Meaning" in The Philosophical Review, Vol 66 (1957), pp 377-388. (Reprinted in his Studies in the Way of Words.)

(5)  "conventional" in the sense of Lewis - Lewis, David;  Convention: A Philosophical Study, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, England, 1969. ISBN 978-0-631-23257-5. Kindle Edition.

(6)  Grice, H. Paul:  "Utterer's Meaning, Sentence Meaning, and Word Meaning" in Foundations of Language, Vol 4 (1968), pp 225-242. (Reprinted in his Studies in the Way of Words.)

(7)  Collin, Finn &Guldmann, Finn;  Meaning, Use and Truth, Automatic Press/VIP, Vince Inc Press, Copenhagen, Denmark. 2010. ISBN 978-8-792-13028-0.

(8)  Dummett, Michael;  Origins of Analytical Philosophy. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1998.  ISBN 978-0-674-64473-1. Pg 128.

(9)  Davidson, Donald;  "The Structure and Content of Truth" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 87 (1990), pg. 314.

(10)  Wikipedia contributors;  "Private Language Argument" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Private_language_argument&oldid=516667600>.

            Candlish, Stewart & Wrisley, George;  "Private Language" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2012/entries/private-language/>.

(11)  Quine, W.V.O.; Word and Object, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1959. ISBN 0-262-67001-1. Kindel Edition.

(12)  Dummett, Michael;  Origins of Analytical Philosophy. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1998.  ISBN 978-0-674-64473-1. Pg 157-158.

(13)  Baker, G.P. & Hacker, P.M.S.;  Wittgenstein: Understanding and Meaning, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, England. 1980.  ISBN 978-1-405-19925-4. Pg 258.

Frege: Logical Excavations, Oxford University Press, New York, New York. 1984. ISBN 978-0-195-03261-1. Chapter 8.

(14)  Glock, Hans-Johann  ;Quine and Davidson on Language, Thought and Reality. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. 2003. ISBN 978-0-521-04805-7. Kindle Edition. Pg 145.

(15)  Fodor, Jerry &  Lepore, Ernest;  Holism. A Shopper's Guide Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, England. 1992. ISBN 978-0-631-18193-4. Pg 54.

(16)  Frege, Gottlob;  The Foundations of Arithmetic, J.L.Austin (transl.), 2nd Edition, Torchbook, Harper & Brothers, New York, New York, 1960. Para 62.

(17)  Davidson, Donald;  "Radical Interpretation" in his Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford University Press, New York, New York. 1984. ISBN 0-199-24628-9. Kindle Edition. Pg. 127.

(18)  Dummett, Michael;  The Logical Basis of Metaphysics. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1994. ISBN 978-0-674-53786-6.  Pp 100-101.

(19)  Dummett, Michael;  "The Significance of Quine's Indeterminacy Thesis" in Synthese Vol 27 (1974), pp. 351--397.

(20)  Quine, W.V.O.;  Theories and Things, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1986.  ISBN 978-0-67487926-3. Pp 19-20.

(21)  Davidson, Donald;  "Indeterminism and Antirealism" in his Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford University Press, New York, New York. 1984. ISBN 0-199-24628-9. Kindle Edition. pp. 69--85.

(22)  Dummett, Michael;  Origins of Analytical Philosophy. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1998.  ISBN 978-0-674-64473-1. Pg 121-126.

            "Truth and Meaning" reprinted as Chapter 6 in The Seas of Language, pp. 148--149.

(23)  Keskinen, Antti;  "On the Relation between Meaning, Thought and Perception". Downloaded from the Internet as a word document. (URL unavailable.)

(24)  Green, Karen;  Dummett. Philosophy of Language. Polity Press, Cambridge, England. 2001. ISBN 978-0-745-62295-8. Pg 193.

(25)  Searle, John;  "Indeterminacy, Empiricism, and the First Person" in The Journal of Philosophy Vol 84 (1987). pp. 123-147.

(26)  Searle, John;  "Indeterminacy, Empiricism, and the First Person" in The Journal of Philosophy Vol 84 (1987). pp. 137.

(27)  Searle, John;  "Indeterminacy, Empiricism, and the First Person" in The Journal of Philosophy Vol 84 (1987). pp. 124.


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