Theory of meaning Referential Mentalist Behaviorist speech acts

Theory of meaning

Although little is heard about it outside the academy, there is a theory of meaning that, at first, seems confusing, since it is related to two distinct fields of study. However, looking a little closer, it is clear that both complement each other. In this article we will provide you the information about Theory of meaning.

There are several theories that exist about the meaning; John Lyon distinguishes the following:

Referential theory

 “The meaning of an expression is what it refers to or represents.”

Mentalist theory

“The meaning of an expression is the idea or concept associated with it in the mind of anyone who knows it.”

Behaviorist theory

 “The meaning of an expression is both the stimulus that evokes it and the response evoked or the combination of both on particular occasions of expression.”

Semantic theory of speech acts

the semantics of speech acts considers language as an integral part of an activity and a way of life. John Langshaw Austin, a philosopher of language, developed the “Speech Act Theory“, where he reinforced the idea that speaking was a form of action, a way of acting. Austin considered the linguistic form of the statements to be important, so in his theory he developed the idea of ​​a link between the illocutionary act -when a speaker issues a statement, he assigns an intentional action value that can be a promise, an order, etc. – and the linguistic form. In this way, a question would have to be marked by the question mark, a command by an imperative form, etc

The philosopher John Rogers Searle continued the line of research initiated by Austin, and in the same way established that asymmetry or constant and regular relationship between the illocutionary force and the linguistic form. In ordinary language this relationship exists, but there are many cases in which the speaker means something slightly different from what he actually expresses. In this case, an imperative form is not always a command or a question is a question. This fact is what led Searle to differentiate between direct illocutionary acts -correlation between illocutionary force and linguistic form- and indirect illocutionary acts -where this correlation does not occur.

Victoria Escandell (1997) collects some of Searle’s phrases referring to this issue: “the problem posed by indirect speech acts is how it is possible for the speaker to say one thing and mean that thing and something else. And since meaning consists in part of the intention to produce understanding in the listener, a large part of that problem is how the listener is able to understand the indirect speech act when the sentence he hears and understands means something else. different. [Searle, 1975, 60]”.

There are several interpretations that have given rise to indirect illocutionary acts. On the one hand, it is considered that the meaning of indirect speech acts is conventionally established, and that speakers interpret it according to that convention. Morgan (Escandell, 1997) maintains that language is subject to two types of conventions: those of the linguistic system -relationship between form and meaning-, and usage conventions -which is what lies between grammar and pragmatics. According to Morgan, when someone says, can you pass me the salt?, what happens is that there is a conventional relationship between this type of question and a very direct request.

The second answer is given by the “Theory of inference“. According to this theory, the speaker carries out a complex process of deduction of the meaning. Thus, in the salt example above, the distance between the literal meaning and the request meaning would follow by inference.

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Meaning theory is studied by philosophers, linguists, and other scholars who seek to understand the origins of meanings and why they mean so. However, there are two types. That is, this theory can be the same as the semantic theory or the fundamental theory. In the case of semantic theory, it refers to the study of the meaning that exists in words, phrases, symbols and other signs created in the most diverse groups, since the most remote times.


In other words, it is possible to say that semantics seeks to understand the relationship between signs and reality by studying the meaning of words throughout human history. By understanding this, it is possible to better understand common expressions in a language, which can lead to a greater understanding, including the historical moment in which a particular social group lived or lives. In addition, the theory of meaning can also be associated with the so-called fundamental theory.


In this case, the study turns to the origin of the symbols (signs, speech, sounds, etc.) belonging to a certain social group. That is, fundamental theory wants to know what mental states led to the creation of existing signals. To understand better, it is possible to say that scholars of the theory of meaning related to semantics would ask the following question: What is the meaning of a given symbol for this given group? Or again: What does this or that expression belonging to the group mean?


Scholars of the fundamental theory of meaning would ask: Due to what facts does a certain symbol have this meaning? This theory, in turn, seeks to understand why a person or group gave certain symbols the meanings they have. Because it is quite similar to a certain extent, there are theorists who believe that both theories complement each other, while there are those who believe that one has nothing to do with the other. There are also scholars who argue that one can limit the results of the other. The American Noam Chomsky and the Italian Umberto Eco are two current examples of specialists in this area.

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