(Based on a forthcoming book with Jason Stanley)
Can you imagine social or cognitive psychology, political science, or literature being studied without a precise account of meaning? Of course you can, because none of these fields standardly use a precise account of meaning, at least not in the sense of modern theoretical semantics and pragmatics. So why, then, are scholars from across the social sciences and humanities not running to linguistics departments everywhere and asking to speak to the semanticist? I don’t know the answer to that question. Most of us shower regularly. But even if some particularly hardworking social scientists or humanists were to spend a few hours trying to digest a detailed compositional account of the truth conditions for “Snow is white” from the whiteboard in the semanticist’s dark office at the back of the building… surely they would return to their home department bemused and disappointed. No help there for a theory of in-group bias, dehumanizing propaganda, or dramatic tension.
Semanticists and philosophers of language seem to live a perfect world. Interlocutors are perfectly rational, and their interests are perfectly aligned. Speakers have no reason to disguise their motivations, and there is never a question as to why someone says something or what they mean. Given the perfect alignment of interests in our world, philosophers and linguists know that hearers can safely assume cooperativity, and then calculate what the speaker must have intended. Works every time. And it makes the job of the theorist of meaning seem relatively straightforward… just a matter of collecting judgments about what sentences imply what other sentences, and what situations are described, and then spelling out the details.
But what of that other world? You know, the messy one. The one where people say all sorts of shit. Oftentimes, in this other world, it is hard to know what people mean. They may have taken pains to hide it from us. They may have said things without fully grasping what their words mean or what effects their words will have. They may even have done things that are horrific and brutal, leaving stunned observers with no idea what any of it means. This talk is about that other world. I contend that by considering only aspects of meaning that are overt, semanticists have made their work largely irrelevant for understanding the social and political world which everybody else inhabits. I will argue that to find meaning in that world, we must leave many of the standard idealizations of semantics behind, and we must consider communicative actions that people perform beyond merely exchanging propositions. In particular, I will argue that to develop a more complete theory of meaning, we must look at ways in which the actions, or what is presupposed by them, can be hidden, and I will proffer some elements of a theory of covert meaning centering on speech acts and social practices.
David Beaver is a professor in the Linguistics and Philosophy departments at The University of Texas at Austin and director of the Cognitive Science Program.