12 - The meaning of ‘meaning’  pp. 215-271

The meaning of ‘meaning’

By Hilary Putnam

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Language is the first broad area of human cognitive capacity for which we are beginning to obtain a description which is not exaggeratedly oversimplified. Thanks to the work of contemporary transformational linguists,† a very subtle description of at least some human languages is in the process of being constructed. Some features of these languages appear to be universal. Where such features turn out to be ‘species-specific’ – ‘not explicable on some general grounds of functional utility or simplicity that would apply to arbitrary systems that serve the functions of language’ – they may shed some light on the structure of mind. While it is extremely difficult to say to what extent the structure so illuminated will turn out to be a universal structure of language, as opposed to a universal structure of innate general learning strategies,‡ the very fact that this discussion can take place is testimony to the richness and generality of the descriptive material that linguists are beginning to provide, and also testimony to the depth of the analysis, insofar as the features that appear to be candidates for ‘species-specific’ features of language are in no sense surface or phenomenological features of language, but lie at the level of deep structure.

The most serious drawback to all of this analysis, as far as a philosopher is concerned, is that it does not concern the meaning of words.