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[xmca] senses of sense and meaning

It would take a dissertation (which probably exists) to unravel all the historical ways in which terms like sense and meaning, signification, reference, denotation, etc. have been used, by philosophers, by linguists, by literary theorists, by psychologists, et al.

Regardless of which term you apply to which, some of the following distinctions can be useful in practice:

The generally understood "default" or "unmarked" meaning of a word or expression vs. the particular special in-this-context meaning it has on some occasion of use.

Ditto for the range of meaning potential of a verbal expression across all contexts vs. an instantial use-meaning.

The imagined material entity or situation an expression can be interpreted as referring to vs. all the other information about the stance the speaker is taking toward it that can be inferred from how it was referred to (or when, or by whom, etc.).

The literal meaning of an expression in its original or most stereotypical contexts of use vs. its various metaphorical meanings in other contexts.

The meaning of an expression as a formulation of some state of affairs vs. its meaning as construing a social relationship or instancing a rhetorical function in the producer-interpreter exchange (actual or potential).

The most limited possible minimal interpretation of the meaning of an expression vs. various more intertext- and association- rich expanded interpretations.

Pretty much all of these distinctions also index major debates about the nature of language, meaning, or both. For instance, no one can really give an entirely satisfactory account of how to distinguish the literal from the metaphorical. These are conventional terms and index a particular folk-theory (and related scientific pseudo-theory) of meaning and language. The notion that a verbal expression "refers" all by itself to anything at all is challenged by semioticians who point out that it takes an interpreting system to accomplish this, including a system of conventions for doing so. There is no hard and fast separation between denotation and connotation, or between the ideational-representational meaning of something and its interpersonal-social-rhetorical meaning. In real texts you find all these distinctions melt into mush, but they are still somewhat useful as a catalogue of things to pay attention to.

Students of child language development sometimes offer intriguing evidence that these distinctions hold up better in earlier language use, as they do also apparently in the case of some neurologically damaged or developmentally exceptional patients. And, it seems, also in the intuitions of some philosophers and linguists.


Jay Lemke
Senior Research Scientist
Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
University of California - San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, California 92093-0506

Professor (Adjunct status 2009-11)
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Professor Emeritus
City University of New York

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