I started wondering about this while taking an undergraduate course in philosophy of language (studying Frege, Davidson, Kripke, and Kit Fine). This field, in my understanding, aims to describe the relationships that exist among linguistic entities (words/sentences/utterances) and the objects/facts in the world to which they refer. A purely physical or psychological explanation of how people come to say things, although uncontroversial, is apparently seen as unsatisfactory here even though it easily explains typical "tricky" cases (like sentences about nonexistent objects or about nonsensical beliefs). So what exactly is this naive account missing? What's left unexplained when we reduce "what does this utterance mean" to "why was it uttered"? I imagine the objection to this reduction is roughly that although we can "explain" utterances by viewing them simply as natural phenomena, we're dodging questions about meaning: what is meaning and how, abstractly, do meanings interact?

This raises some broader questions for me:

  1. Is the question “what is meaning” well-posed? In what sense do we think that meaning has to “be” something? Are we assuming that reality is fundamentally composed of discrete objects and relations, including meanings? Does philosophy of language assume that e.g. apples and the word “apple” are fundamental entities in this sense? Is there an alternative metaphysical perspective from which many questions in this field have trivial answers or stop making sense?

  2. More generally, what constitutes a valid and complete answer to a question of the form “what is X” or “does X exist” (e.g. "do numbers exist" in philosophy of math)? What constitutes an acceptable metaphysical/ontological theory?

  3. Does an answer to (2) necessarily include metaphysical claims of its own? For example, we might answer (2) by saying that any metaphysical theory must describe the fundamental entities comprising reality, but is this belief in “fundamental entities” not itself a metaphysical theory (or at least part of one)?

Is there an author or an area of study that that addresses questions like this?

  • 1
    What you asking about is called theory of meaning rather than meta-metaphysics (there is something called meta-philosophy, but it is different). 1) Naive reification of "meanings" is largely abandoned. Some philosophers dismiss "meaning" as obscure, but still provide accounts of language beyond mere pragmatics, i.e. they interpret talk of meaning as allusion to something else 2) What a "complete answer" is depends on one's metaphysics and epistemology, there is no agreed upon common ground. – Conifold May 12 at 23:29
  • the problem with meta-meta is the same problem with all argumentation which degenerates into ad infinitum... – Swami Vishwananda May 13 at 7:18
  • "Is the question of meaning well posed?" This is silliness, but you have been taught by professors who were themselves brainwashed by a certain fading period in philosophy. The world goes by as philosophers sit around and fiddle around with language. But then the philosophers are less dangerous when they hide in this way, they don't really think, – Gordon May 13 at 16:18
  • Historically metaphysics is the name given to Aristotle's works that came 'after' physics i.e. philosophy. So meta-philosophy could be taken to be that meta-meta. – sand1 May 13 at 18:44

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