Meaning in Fact

Oughts and Thoughts: Scepticism and the Normativity of Meaning is a 2007 book by Oxford philosophy professor Anandi Hattiangadi that develops a response to Saul Kripke’s skepticism about whether there is a fact of meaning in a person’s use of language. In Kripke’s 1984 book Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language he argued, via a controversial interpretation of Wittgenstein, that there is never a fact about the linguistic meaning itself in our use of language.

Note that this is not global skepticism about the objective facts that science is supposed to study. This is the fairly typical contemporary view that if language requires interpretation then its meaning-content is ‘merely subjective’ or even ‘merely intersubjective’. This is skepticism about whether in language the semantics or meanings expressed, e.g., conceptual contents like “the distinction of the 18th-century powdered wig” or “comedy” or “the zombie in cinema”, are themselves ‘a matter of fact’.

If Heidegger inquires about the meaning of being, we could say that Hattiangadi inquires about the being of meaning. Here is her essential argument:

If the skeptic reaches the conclusion that there is no fact of meaning in language use then he must rely on the thesis that linguistic meaning is normative, i.e., it contains inferential rules for interpreting in a particular way, and also hold that the normativity of linguistic meaning essentially fails, i.e., it does not ‘really’ contain inferential rules for interpreting in a particular way. Thus skepticism about meaning and its notion of being ‘merely subjective’ or ‘merely intersubjective’ is incoherent. And thus Hattiangadi concludes that the meanings in our language must be in the realm of fact.

This might seem to be merely a version of a coherence type of argument against skepticism, but I’d suggest that there are implications here regarding the being of meaning ala Heidegger, and about the normativity of language itself.

You can read a full review of Oughts and Thoughts: Scepticism and the Normativity of Meaning here at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

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